Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

If you haven't noticed, or if you'd given up following weeks or months ago, the Phillies have won seven of their last nine games. For a good or even average team, this would only be slightly notable, but before this stretch, the Phils had won just seven of their last 28 games--and even that began with a three-game winning streak--so a patch of games this good feels almost like an entire season turning around.

A reversal of fortunes like this requires some kind of over-arcing explanation, and the obvious one in this case would be the big change the Phillies made up top, replacing longtime manager Charlie Manuel with third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Asked about whether it's Sanbderg making the difference, last night's winning pitcher Cliff Lee says sorta, not really. Jim Salisbury of CSN got the quote:

We’re grinding it out a little more, just playing hard from the start to the finish, basic execution...I’ve said that from the very beginning -- if we just execute and play fundamental baseball we can beat anyone. We’ve started doing that in the last week and a half or so and the results are showing.

I’m not a guy who thinks the manager wins or loses games for us. I don’t think it was Charlie’s fault that we lost, and I don’t think it’s Sandberg that’s winning it for us, to be honest with you. But I think he has instilled more of let’s-get-after-it frame of mind and that’s what we’re doing.

But it’s the guys that are going out there and getting the outs and making the plays and swinging the bats that’s getting it done. I feel like his frame of mind and what he expects has influenced that and it’s up to us to buy into it and lay it out and we’ve definitely done a better job with that, just getting after it and playing hard and never giving up and trying to execute and play fundamental baseball. That’s how we’ve won the last 10 days.

So is it really Sandberg making the difference? An improvement in fundamentals? Let's look at some other explanations for how the Phillies have actually managed to win some games recently.

  • They've been facing some crappier competition. Let's remember that as many games as the Phillies lost recently, they lost most of 'em to some pretty damn good teams. Three to the Cardinals, three to the Tigers, three to the Braves, three to the Nats, two to the Dodgers--and all of 'em (except probably the underperforming Nats) are headed to the postseason. Now, the Phillies have had the benefit of playing three against the reeling Rockies, three against the mostly mediocre Diamondbacks, and now a series against the injury-decimated Mets. Opponents matter, and you can expect the hot streak to likely continue through three against the rebuilding Cubs after our last two at Citi.
  • They've been getting pretty lucky. They may be on a 7-2 run, but over those nine games, they've only managed to cumulatively outscore opponents 42-39. Remarkably, all but one of those seven victories were by just one run, including those three straight walk-off victories that almost managed to make people excited about Phillies baseball again. You could say that winning in those games comes down to execution and fundamentals, like Cliff posits, but luck also plays a big part with margins of victory so small--a beneficial call here or there, a grounder that finds its way up the middle, a throw that sails a foot or two wide. Play enough games in a season and eventually you'll lose three or four straight by one run, too, and it won't just be because the other team executed better, either.
  • They've been getting some starting pitching. The Phils have gotten quality starts in six of their last nine games--outings that last at least six innings without allowing more than three runs--and they've won all six. After some minor post-All-Star struggles, Cliff Lee appears to have rounded back into form, going seven innings or more in his last three starts and getting his first win since early July with his eight-inning, five-hit, one-walk and seven-strikeout performance last night against the Mets. Cole Hamels has been similarly solid, also going at least seven in each of his last three, and pitching his first CG victory of the season against the Braves a couple weeks ago. If Roy Halladay can continue on the comeback trail after his rocky return (albeit in a win) against the Diamondbacks, we might actually have a pretty decent top three for our pitching rotation again.
  • They've been getting some relief pitching, too. The unspoken hero of the recent Phils' hot streak has been closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has regained his early-season consistency over his last six appearances, giving up zero runs, zero walks and only four hits over the span, picking up two saves and two wins in the process. Far more surprising, however, has been the contribution of lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who as Salisbury points out in that same CSN article, has gone scoreless over his last seven appearances, also with zero walks and four hits, but with an impressive 12 strikeouts over that period. We'd been waiting all year for someone from our crappy bullpen to step up into dependability, and at long last--and far too late--it looks like Diekman actually has a shot of being that guy.
  • Their catcher is hitting again. Darin Ruf has been getting most of the attention recently for his hot August, and rightly so--The Babe has hit nine homers in the month, second-most in the majors to some random guy in Detroit, and now has as many homers on the season as Ryan Howard in about half the games. But have you been paying attention to what Carlos Ruiz has been doing at the same time? After a disconcertingly slow start to the season after his return from suspension and then injury, Chooch has hit at a sparkling clip .347/.373/.556 this month--numbers which spike to .455/.471/.758 (!!) if you only include the team's last nine games. It was easy to forget how huge a part of this offense Ruiz used to be when he was hitting like Humberto Quintero, but now that he's back in the saddle, it's once again impossible to imagine the lineup without him somewhere near the middle.

As always in baseball, it's impossible to quantify just how much the manager helps--are the Phillies winning more because they're focused and excited and playing together again, or are they focused and excited and playing together again because they're winning more? But regardless of how much Ryne Sandberg's installment as manager has helped the team lately, there are some more easily isolated factors that have been just as important, if not more, to their recent winning ways. Hopefully they stick around to next year, regardless of whether or not Sandberg does.

Previewing Eagles 2016 training camp: A to Z

Previewing Eagles 2016 training camp: A to Z

The Eagles officially kick off training camp on Monday morning, when rookies, select veterans and quarterbacks report to the NovaCare Complex. 

The rest of the team will show up on Wednesday, which leads into the first full team practice on Thursday afternoon at 3:30. From there, things don’t really stop until the season ends in January. 

But every season starts with training camp. This will be the first under head coach Doug Pederson and the first as Eagles for many rookies and free agent pickups. 

Let’s take a look at this year’s training camp from A to Z: 

A – Nelson Agholor: Agholor wasn’t charged with sexual assault stemming from an incident at a South Philadelphia gentlemen’s club in June, but that doesn’t mean he’s past it. The second-year receiver will undoubtedly be asked about the incident the first time he fields questions from reporters and likely won’t say much. He’s lucky most of the incident is behind him, however, because the last thing he needs is a distraction. Agholor is coming off an extremely disappointing rookie season and has a chance to turn things around by earning a starting receiver job. He could be one of the biggest keys to the Eagles’ offense in 2016. 

B – Bucs. Mark it on your calendars, folks: the first preseason game of 2016 is on Aug. 11 against Tampa Bay at the Linc. It’ll be our first chance to see a ton of new players – including the No. 2 pick – in game action. 

C – Cornerback. One of the more intriguing position groups on this team for a few reasons. It looks like one of the starting corner jobs is going to belong to free agent pickup Leodis McKelvin. But the other? Well, it could belong to Nolan Carroll or Eric Rowe or Ron Brooks or even rookie Jalen Mills. And then one guy will have the opportunity to play the slot. During the spring, Brooks played outside and slid into the slot in the Nickel. 

Aside from the top of the roster, there’s intrigue among the last few corners on the roster. Simply put: there are too many talented young players than there are roster spots. 

D – Days off. There aren’t many. Training camp is a brutal few weeks. From the start of camp until the first game on Aug. 11, players have off just two days (Aug. 2, Aug. 9) and 15 practice days. 

E – Early mornings. If training camp isn’t brutal enough, practices are starting mighty early. Once the entire team gets to camp, practices will start at 8:15 a.m., which is when Andy Reid used to hold his camp practices. 

F – Fullback. Under Doug Pederson’s offense, a fullback will be used. Now, the Eagles don’t have a traditional FB on the roster, so this job will belong to either Trey Burton or Chris Pantale, who are both listed as tight ends. Pantale worked with the first team at fullback in the spring, while Burton got some second-team snaps, but Pederson made sure to note that he wanted to see both of them play the position when the hitting started at training camp. Here’s his chance. 

G – Chris Givens. If you’re looking for an under-the-radar player to become a fan and media favorite during camp, look no further than Givens. He had a very good spring and his rapport with starting QB Sam Bradford was clearly on display. Givens can catch short passes, but his ability to stretch the field will be more fun to watch. With a base salary of just $760,000, he could be a huge bargain. 

H – Hitting. It’s something we didn’t see a lot of during the last three years of training camps under Chip Kelly. He preferred to keep things lighter, in terms of hitting, to prevent injuries. Pederson’s philosophy is different and more like Reid’s. The Eagles will hit at training camp. At times, they will have live (tackle to the ground) periods. It will much more closely resemble actually football than what Kelly had the team doing for the last three years. 

I – Isaac Seumalo. Through no fault of his own, the rookie third-round pick missed all of OTAs this spring because of the NFL/college graduation rule. Seumalo was able to stay in touch with his coaches through the marvels of modern technology, but he still missed a ton. And now he’s playing catch-up. Will he have enough time to wrestle away the starting left tackle job from Allen Barbre? Not sure. First, though, he’ll need to surpass top backup Stefen Wisniewski, who also has his eyes set on that starting left guard spot. 

J – Jason Peters. For whatever reason, Peters declined to talk to the media all spring. We’ll try again during training camp. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t thrilled about all the talk of his decline in play, which, while it might be unpleasant for him, is hard to argue. Peters is 34 and his eventual successor Lane Johnson signed a long-term deal this offseason. Still, Peters is a big key to the Eagles’ offensive success in 2016. 

K – Kicker. Caleb Sturgis or Cody Parkey will win this job and you may not care. But you probably should. Sturgis looked better in the open practices this spring, but Parkey is recovering from a serious injury and will have every chance to win his old job back. 

L – Linebackers. This is perhaps the scariest position on the roster in terms of depth. Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks have lengthy injury histories and Nigel Bradham is somewhat of an unknown. Still, it might be a solid starting group. But after them? Najee Goode, Deontae Skinner, Joe Walker and a few undrafted rookies. Yikes.  

M – Most at stake. There are several players who can earn a roster spot or even a starting job over the next few weeks. I outline them here

N – NovaCare Complex. For the fourth straight year training camp will be held in South Philadelphia and it doesn’t look like it’ll be heading back to Lehigh University anytime soon. This is sad in some ways because it was a lot of fun up there, but it’s hard to blame Pederson for choosing convenience over team-building. 

O – Open practices. This is the part of having camp at home that really stinks. When it was at Lehigh, fans could get a really good look at their team and I know many took the opportunity to make a mini vacation of it. This year, there are just two open practices, on July 31 at 10 a.m. and Aug. 14 at 7 p.m. 

Both open practices are at Lincoln Financial Field and do not require tickets. Seating is first-come, first-serve. Parking for the practices is free in K Lot, which will open at 7 a.m. (gates open at 8) on July 31 and 4 p.m. (gates open at 5) on Aug. 14. Keep in mind, the NFL’s clear bag policy will be in effect. Concessions will be open during those practices. 

P – Doug Pederson. Obviously, a lot of eyes are going to be on Pederson as he enters his first year as a head coach in the NFL. We got a sense of what his practices are going to look like from OTAs, and they’re going to be much different than the ones Kelly ran. Slower pace, more teaching. Really, a more traditional look. 

Q – Quarterbacks. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, the Eagles have invested a ton of money and resources into the quarterback position. They re-signed Sam Bradford, signed Chase Daniel, then moved up from 13 to 8 to 2 to draft Carson Wentz. Pederson and his offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who are both former NFL QBs, have obviously put a ton of stock in the position. How will it all shake out this season? We’re not sure yet, mostly because injuries are impossible to predict, but we’ll certainly be watching. 

R – Rookies. Wentz is the first quarterback the Eagles have taken this high in a draft since Donovan McNabb. Yeah, people are going to be watching him. But the Eagles have plenty of other draft picks and undrafted rookies in camp, 26 in all. Now, not many are considered to be candidates to make impacts this year, but a few could. 

S – Jim Schwartz. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator is almost as important as the head coach. He’s charged with turning around a unit that has been very bad for the last few years. He has some new pieces to go along with his 4-3 scheme. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to watch. 

T – TV. The first two preseason games will be simulcast on CSNPhilly and COZI TV. The last two preseason games will be on NBC10. CSNPhilly will also replay all the games (see story)

U – Under the microscope. For the last few years, Fletcher Cox has way out-performed his rookie contract. To out-perform his new deal, he’ll have to become a perennial Pro Bowler. He’s clearly the best player on the team – and the Eagles paid him like it – but now it’s time for him to show he’s worth the money. And Cox isn’t the only one. Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz and Vinny Curry also got big money in long-term deals. 

V – Destiny Vaeao. Aside from linebacker, the position with the biggest depth concern is probably defensive tackle. After starters Cox and Bennie Logan, there’s Mike Martin, who is probably the top backup. Then there’s Beau Allen and Taylor Hart, who are questionable scheme fits. That leaves the door open for an undrafted rookie to make the team here, and the top one this spring was Vaeao from Washington State. Now, Aziz Shittu from Stanford might push for a roster spot, but he missed all spring because of the NFL/college graduation rule.  

W – Carson Wentz. The No. 2 pick’s first training camp. Everyone’s gonna be watching. The thing we really have to look forward to is seeing Wentz playing in the preseason games, where he should get significant snaps. 

X – X’s and O’s. Since training camp will actually resemble real football, the X’s and O’s will be important. We’ll see if Pederson’s offense will have some downfield influence from Frank Reich. And then we’ll get a chance to see what Schwartz’s defense is all about. How quickly will the returning players figure it out? 

Y – Year 2 and 3 players. Plenty of folks will be watching the rookies, specifically Wentz, but there are several players entering their second and third years in the league who need to make more of an impact. To name a few: Agholor, Josh Huff, Marcus Smith. All early-rounders who haven’t hit their potential. 

Z – Zoo. Under Kelly, there just seemed to be much more media hype around the Eagles, especially last year. Plenty thought the Birds were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, Kelly was always intriguing, and the team made some major offseason moves. This year, there’s Wentz, but not nearly the expectations in 2016. With the headlines and radio airwaves the Sixers have gotten in town recently, the Eagles have been on the back burner. Don’t expect this to last long though. After all, this is a football town.

Best of MLB: Padres score 4 off Papelbon in 9th, take series from Nationals

Best of MLB: Padres score 4 off Papelbon in 9th, take series from Nationals

WASHINGTON -- The San Diego Padres' three-city road trip didn't begin well. Earning their first series victory against the Washington Nationals since 2011 is helping to turn it around.

Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf hit back-to-back homers off Shawn Kelley in the eighth inning and the Padres added four runs off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth to beat the Nationals 10-6 on Sunday.

"We've been on the road for a little bit, and it's definitely good to come here against a team like this and get two wins out of it," said Schimpf, whose team suffered a four-game sweep in St. Louis before winning two of three in Washington.

Ryan Buchter (2-0) pitched a scoreless eighth to earn the victory.

With the game tied at 6, Wil Myers drew a one-out walk off Papelbon and moved to second on a wild pitch before Yangervis Solarte's RBI single. The Padres added two more singles to load the bases, setting up Alexei Ramirez's three-run double (see full recap).

Matz earns 1st win since May as Mets beat Marlins
MIAMI -- Helped by a couple of small victories against Giancarlo Stanton, Steven Matz earned a big win for the New York Mets.

Matz pitched six innings Sunday for his first win since May, twice escaping trouble by getting Stanton to ground out with a runner in scoring position, and the Mets took the rubber game of their series against Miami, 3-0.

"It was good to go out there and put up zeroes and get a win," Matz said.

The Mets won two of three games in the series and returned home trailing second-place Miami by half a game in the NL East.

"This was crunch time for us," manager Terry Collins said. "We couldn't lose any more ground. This was a good series for us to win."

Matz (8-6) allowed four hits, walked two and struck out six. Pitching despite a bone spur in his elbow, he had been 0-5 in his past nine starts with an ERA of 4.73 (see full recap).

Reimold's HR helps Orioles beat Indians 5-3 for 3-game sweep
BALTIMORE -- This is how good things are going for the Orioles at home this season: After blowing a late-inning lead, Baltimore launched the game-winning uprising with a third strike.

Pinch-hitter Nolan Reimold hit a decisive two-out homer in the ninth inning after Pedro Alvarez reached on a strikeout, and the Orioles beat the Cleveland Indians 5-3 Sunday for a three-game sweep.

Cody Allen (2-4) began the ninth by striking out Alvarez, but the ball eluded catcher Roberto Perez. After fielding the bouncing ball off the backstop, Perez hit Alvarez in the helmet with the throw for an error.

"As long as I have been playing baseball the rule is you run down the baseline," Alvarez said. "I saw the ball get away from him and I just ran down to first base."

A sacrifice bunt and a strikeout followed before Reimold lined a 2-0 pitch into the left-field seats (see full recap).

DeShields homers as Rangers top Royals
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Delino DeShields is known for his speed, stealing 101 bases in 2012 in the minors, not for his power.

DeShields homered in the seventh inning to break a tie and the Texas Rangers defeated the Kansas City Royals 2-1 on Sunday.

DeShields, who was recalled Thursday from Triple-A Round Rock, walked and doubled before leading off the seventh with his third home run. DeShields hit a 2-1 pitch from Luke Hochevar out to left.

"It so happened that today I was the guy that got us the go-ahead run," DeShields said. "I was just trying to hit the ball hard. I wasn't looking for anything specific. I wanted to get on base. Before I had gotten on base in every at-bat.

"With the game tied and if I get myself in scoring position, there's a good chance for me to touch home plate. I got into it pretty good and got it over the fence, but the main focus was just putting the barrel on the ball and try to get on base."

The loss dropped the Royals to 48-49, the first time the World Series champions have been below .500 since May 15 when they were 18-19. The Royals have lost 13 of 19 games in July (see full recap).

Andres Blanco breaks finger as beat-up Phillies drop series to Pirates

Andres Blanco breaks finger as beat-up Phillies drop series to Pirates

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- Andres Blanco isn’t the type of player who will generate a lot of headlines over the course of a season.
 
But the 32-year-old utility infielder is a favorite of manager Pete Mackanin for his ability to fill in capably at all four infield positions. The nine-year veteran is also popular in the clubhouse for his pleasant nature and unselfishness.
     
The Phillies will be without Blanco for 15 days and maybe longer after he suffered a fractured left index finger in the fifth inning of Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates when spiked on the hand by Gregory Polanco on a play at third base (see Instant Replay).
 
Blanco will be placed on the 15-day disabled list Monday night before the Phillies open a three-game series against the Marlins at Miami.
 
“It’s a tough loss,” Mackanin said. “He is a valuable part of the team. He’s a guy with experience and he’s dependable. Hopefully, we’ll get him back a quicker than we hope. I don’t like the idea of being without him for long.”
 
Blanco will be examined by Phillies’ team doctors Monday in Philadelphia.
 
He needed four stitches to close a cut on the finger. There is a chance he will need surgery both because of the fracture and the risk of possible infection caused by the dirt from Polanco’s spikes getting into Blanco’s bloodstream through the cut.
 
Blanco was making his second straight start at third base in place of Maikel Franco, who was out with a sore left wrist after being hit by a pitch Friday from Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole.
 
Franco took over at third for Blanco, who is hitting .271 with four homers in 75 games this season. Blanco hit a solo home run with two outs in the first inning off rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon to open the scoring.
 
The Phillies lack a true backup infielder beyond Blanco, which makes Taylor Featherstom the most logical candidate to be called up from Lehigh Valley as he is already on the 40-man roster.
 
Acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for cash considerations just before the start of spring training, the 26-year-old has spent the entire season in the International League and is hitting .264 with 12 home runs in 87 games.
 
The Phillies did get some good injury news as Franco showed no ill effects from his wrist injury and went 1 for 2.
 
Also, catcher Cameron Rupp passed Major League Baseball’s concussion protocol for a second straight day after being hit in the left ear flap of his batting helmet on Saturday by a pitch from Pirates rookie right-hander Tyler Glasnow. Carlos Ruiz started behind the plate as Mackanin wanted to give Rupp an extra day off.
 
"If you get hit in the head, you probably want to take a little bit more precaution than if it was another part of your body,” Rupp said.
 
The Phillies were not happy that Glasnow hit Rupp and starting pitcher Aaron Nola in Saturday’s game, especially after Franco got drilled the day before. However, Rupp said he did not think the 23-year-old was headhunting.
 
“I don't believe the kid did it on purpose,” Rupp said. “It happens. Balls get away from people.”
 
Outfielder Aaron Altherr is also expected to make his season debut Wednesday with the Phillies at Miami. He has been on the disabled list all season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left wrist, an injury he suffered during spring training.
 
Altherr hit .241 with five home runs in 39 late-season games last year after making his major league debut in 2014 and going 0 for 5. He figures to be an offensive upgrade over left fielder Cody Asche and right fielder Peter Bourjos.
 
“Altherr got a taste of it here last year and did very well,” Mackanin said. “He can catch the ball, too, which is important to me. I’m looking forward to having him and seeing if he can build off last season. The lack of production from the corner outfielders has been a bane of ours all season and we could use some help.”