Sixers Host Pacers in First Of Brutal Back-to-Back-to-Back

Sixers Host Pacers in First Of Brutal Back-to-Back-to-Back

The two teams the Sixers disposed of over the weekend have a combined total of five wins on the season. Tonight's opponent, the Indiana Pacers, have six themselves keeping them right near the top of the Central behind seven win Chicago. So it's safe to say tonight will be a bit of a test. Will the Sixers be able to maintain their remarkable efficiency or will the Pacers' size finally crack the Sixers' winning streak?

The Sixers will have their hands full with Roy Hibbert in the middle while the Jrue Holiday-Darren Collison matchup of former UCLA Bruins has proven to be a usually entertaining one. Tonight is the first of one of those horrid back-to-back-to-backs, so expect Doug Collins to get everyone involved. Don't want anyone keeling over while on Amtrak home from the Garden on Wednesday night.

The Pacers will be without Danny Granger tonight, who did not make the trip due to illness.

Tip off with the Pacers set for 7:00. Put your Revolutionary hat on.

Jim Schwartz on missing Fletcher Cox: 'He’ll catch up'

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Jim Schwartz on missing Fletcher Cox: 'He’ll catch up'

As the Eagles kicked off their second round of voluntary OTAs on Tuesday morning at the NovaCare Complex, the team’s best player was still MIA.
 
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is staying away from the team as he awaits a long-term contract extension for big money. He hasn’t been at any of the team’s voluntary workouts this spring and the first mandatory date isn’t until June 7.
 
As the Eagles install a new defense, how much is Cox missing?
 
“It’s voluntary, so you can only do so much,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday afternoon in a near-30-minute press conference. “Fletch was drafted in a scheme similar to this. He’ll catch up. But I’m sure there will be some carryover for him. I assume he’s a fast learner and I assume he’ll pick things up quickly.”
 
Without Cox on Tuesday, veteran free agent pickup Mike Martin worked with the first-team defense at tackle next to Bennie Logan. Last week, at the first open OTA practice, Taylor Hart filled in for Cox.
 
When asked if he has spoken with Cox since taking the job, Schwartz declined to comment, saying he prefers to keep private conversations with players private.
 
And by the third consecutive Cox question – this one about how Cox will eventually fit into his defense – the veteran NFL coach was ready to move on.
 
“Why don’t we do this: that’s probably enough Fletcher Cox speak,” Schwartz said. “Let’s just talk about the guys that are here. I really can’t comment on the guys that aren’t here. I haven’t had any experience with those guys. So anything I’d say would really be hypothetical, to tell you the truth.
 
“I did look, as the whole defensive staff did, we evaluated last year, what guys did. And he certainly had an impressive year last year. And we think that scheme-wise and technique-wise, what we’re going to do is going to fit him very well.”

Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

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Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

Phillies (25-20) at Tigers (22-22)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies actually lost a one-run game. 

Their six-game road trip started off with a 5-4 loss Monday night — which makes them 14-4 in one-run games — against a Tigers lineup that showed just how much power it has. Miguel Cabrera homered twice, and J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos added solo shots of their own. It was an all-around rough night for Phillies pitchers, but they have a chance to even the series tonight at Comerica Park.

Let's take a look at the matchup:

1. Keep 'em in the park
Comerica Park favors pitchers more than hitters, but the Tigers and Phillies made it look small on Monday, hitting a combined six home runs. Oddly enough, all were solo shots.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes tonight for more success than Vince Velasquez had Monday. Hellickson struggled with the home run ball earlier in the year, allowing nine in his first seven starts. He didn't allow one in either of his last two starts, but the Marlins and Reds aren't as loaded offensively as the Tigers.

Detroit has clicked at the plate over the last week, belting 17 home runs over its last six games. J.D. Martinez has three of them and Cabrera has five. With those two batting second and third, Hellickson needs to be sharp in the first inning. 

The opening frame has been a problem for Hellickson all season — his opponents have hit .289 with an .883 OPS, six doubles and a homer. His first-inning ERA is 7.00 this season and 5.75 over the last two.

2. Changes from Hellickson
He enters 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA. Over his last two starts, Hellickson's given up just two earned runs in 13 innings, putting 11 men on base and striking out 13. He's faced 57 batters since last allowing a home run for his longest homerless streak of the season.

What's been the biggest difference for Hellickson in his last two starts? He's turned to his changeup, his best pitch, more often with two strikes. In his first seven outings, Hellickson threw the changeup 18 percent of the time with two strikes. His last two starts, he's thrown it 48 percent of the time with two strikes. It's completely fooled the opposition, which is 0 for 17 with 11 strikeouts against Hellickson's changeup over that span.

Hellickson has by far the highest swing-and-miss rate of changeups in all of baseball with 57 in 184 pitches (31 percent).

Look for Hellickson to continue utilizing that pitch tonight. Here are some of the Tigers' numbers this season against right-handed changeups:

Cabrera: 1 for 11
Castellanos: 1 for 10
Justin Upton: 1 for 7
J.D. Martinez: 0 for 7

Current Tigers are 30 for 95 (.316) lifetime against Hellickson. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has done the most damage, going 8 for 25 with three doubles, three homers and five walks. Cabrera is 4 for 11 with a homer. Upton is 5 for 13 with two doubles and two homers.

3. Not the same Verlander
Now 33, Justin Verlander is not the same fireballer he was in his prime. In 2011, the year he won AL Cy Young and MVP, his fastball averaged 95 mph. This season, the pitch has averaged a career-low 92.1. 

Here's a look at the difference for Verlander's pitches the last three seasons compared to his peak of 2009 to 2012:

2009-12
Fastball: .254 opponents' batting average
Curveball: .152
Changeup: .196
Slider: .209

2014-present
Fastball: .263
Curveball: .248
Changeup: .275
Slider: .227

His pitches just haven't had the same life and bite as they once did. We've seen this happen to a number of former aces over the last few seasons: Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay. When the decline happens, it happens fast, especially for guys who pitch so many innings every year. It's not as drastic for some as it is for others. King Felix has been able to remain effective despite diminished velocity by mastering his offspeed pitches. That's something Lincecum, Cain and Sabathia have been unable to do.

Verlander is sort of in between. Since the start of 2014, he's 23-24 with a 4.16 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 61 starts. He hasn't been horrible but hasn't been great either.

This season, Verlander is 3-4 with a 4.58 ERA. He's struck out 60 and walked 20 in 57 innings. He's on a roll entering tonight's game, having allowed just four runs over his last 22⅓ innings with 27 strikeouts.

Current Phillies have only 34 career at-bats against Verlander and 18 belong to David Lough. Ryan Howard and Andres Blanco are 0 for 3, Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 2 and Peter Bourjos is 1 for 8.

4. Franco breaking out?
Maikel Franco has had back-to-back multi-hit games for the first time since April 22-23, when he hit three home runs and drove in seven in the first two games of a series in Milwaukee.

Is he finally breaking out of his lengthy slump? Every time over the last few weeks that it's looked like it, he's followed with a few hitless games. 

Franco does appear to be seeing the ball better, though. He's walked just 11 times all season but four have come in his last seven games. In his last five, he's reached base nine times in 19 plate appearances with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• Odubel Herrera, who was pulled from Monday's game for not hustling out a groundball, has followed an 0-for-11 skid by going 5 for 7 in his last two games. He's batting .335, and his .901 OPS is 10th among all NL outfielders, ahead of guys like Starling Marte, Hunter Pence, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Gonzalez.

• Herrera's five errors lead all MLB centerfielders. Nobody else has more than two.

• Colton Murray's soaking up three innings last night allowed David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez to rest despite Velasquez's recording just 12 outs. Hernandez has had two full days off. Getting these guys some rest will be crucial moving forward. Neris is on pace for 86 appearances, Gomez 83 and Hernandez 72. Last season, only one reliever in the majors (St. Louis' Kevin Siegrist) had 80-plus appearances.

• Tommy Joseph entered Monday 0 for 7 with four strikeouts against right-handed pitching, but he had a double and a homer off Mike Pelfrey. 

• Ryan Howard is 4 for 52 (.077) with 22 strikeouts over his last 18 games. His .156 batting average ranks last among 180 qualifying major-leaguers and his .226 OBP is 177th.

Flyers Stay or Go Part 3: Brandon Manning to Michael Raffl

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Flyers Stay or Go Part 3: Brandon Manning to Michael Raffl

In the third of our five-part offseason series examining the future of the Flyers, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster. We go alphabetically. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found by clicking the links. Today, we begin with Brandon Manning.

Brandon Manning
2015-16 stats: 56 GP, 1 G, 6 A; Contract: Restricted free agent

Dougherty: I don’t see Manning as a long-term fit here — he’s a restricted free agent — but he showed enough this past season to stick around another year. If a prospect beats him out in training camp, so be it. If not, he’s a good placemat until one of them is ready to take the reins.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Manning, an inexpensive pending restricted free agent, will be back next season. Is he a long-term answer on the Flyers’ blue line? I can’t say he is, but Ron Hextall liked his growth and the soon-to-be 26-year-old is capable enough to keep a defensive spot warm before the prospects arrive.
 
Verdict: STAY

Paone: Manning isn’t in the category of one of those guys to build around. In fact, he’ll already be 26 in just over a week. But Manning was very good in his third-pair role alongside Radko Gudas late last season and proved he can stick. He’s a RFA, but proved he should be back, at least in the short term. He’ll be fine again in the same role or valuable NHL-ready depth if someone ahead of him is hurt or fails to play well enough to stay in the lineup. Odds are he’s with the big club in some capacity when the season begins.

Verdict: STAY

Steve Mason
2015-16 stats: 23-19-10, 2.51, .918 SV%; Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $4.1 mm cap hit

Dougherty: We touched on this two weeks ago. Mason is the starting goalie, though Michal Neuvirth will push him even more than he did this season come September. But that’s OK. Mason led the Flyers to the playoffs with terrific goaltending down the stretch before running out of gas. There’s no reason to move him this summer. Some teams envy the Flyers’ goalie situation. I’m sure if you call the Dallas Stars, they’ll tell you the same thing.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: I’ve said I believe the Flyers would benefit greatly from trading one of their two No. 1 goalies before they can become unrestricted free agents following the 2016-17 season. I feel Mason has a better chance than Michal Neuvirth at sticking in Philadelphia down the road. The man who carried the Flyers’ torch into the playoffs is more proven and less injury-prone.
 
Verdict
: STAY

Paone: As Tom and Jordan mentioned, we tackled the goalie question in an End to End last week. I mentioned there I am of the belief that the Flyers don’t have a No. 1 goalie, nor do they have a No. 2 goalie. They have two very good goaltenders whom they have the utmost confidence in when either is between the pipes on a given night.  And they’ll need both again next season as both have had injury issues. Some will only remember how Mason’s season ended with a thud in the playoffs against Washington and not how he put the Flyers on his back down the stretch and led them to the playoffs. And that’s just not fair. But Mason will be back. Now’s not the time to move either goalie, especially when Mason and Michal Neuvirth’s contracts are both up after next season. Let the goalie prospects, specifically Anthony Stolarz in Lehigh Valley, get some more seasoning and reassess the situation at the end of next season.

Verdict: STAY

Colin McDonald
2015-16 stats: 5 GP, 1 G, 0 A; Contract: Signed through 2017-18, $637,500 cap hit

Dougherty: McDonald proved himself to be a very valuable AHL player last season. He played a few games during the regular season with the Flyers, and a couple in the playoffs. I really liked the energy he brought and wouldn’t hate to see him on the NHL roster. But they need scoring, and he’s really just another role player. He signed an extension mid-season, so he’ll head back to Lehigh Valley.

Verdict: GO

Hall: McDonald had a leadership impact at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley and served the Flyers as a reliable insurance policy. His experience is valuable within the organization, but much more so with the Phantoms full-time, being available for the Flyers when needed.
 
Verdict
: GO

Paone: Depth is so valuable, not just at the NHL level, but throughout the entire organization. And depth player is the category McDonald, a veteran forward, falls into. He’s a guy with a physical edge who can be called up at a moment’s notice and fill almost any role that’s asked of him. Don’t expect him to make the big club out of camp, barring injuries or anything else unforeseen. So that’s why I’ll say go. But don’t be surprised if he’s among the first names on the call-up list during season.

Verdict: GO

Evgeny Medvedev
2015-16 stats: 45 GP, 4 G, 9 A; Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Dougherty: I like Medvedev’s game, but he didn’t work out. Hextall brought him over from Russia on a one-year deal and while I’ve seen some say it’s Hextall’s worst move as GM, it was not a bad move.  Overall, Medvedev wasn’t a killer on the ice. In fact, he didn’t make a ton of mistakes, but when he did, it would be a big one and lead to Hakstol benching him. He’s a puck-moving defenseman and NHL teams need them. His legal troubles could be a deterrent for teams, though. If he wants to continue playing in North America, he'll have to look elsewhere.

Verdict: GO

Hall: Medvedev brought an intriguing offensive game but struggled in his own zone. To be frank, though, there’s no way he returns. Medvedev turns 34 in August, will be an unrestricted free agent and faces legal trouble following an arrest shortly after the Flyers’ playoff exit.
 
Verdict: GO

Paone: Ron Hextall took a no-risk flier (no pun intended, I promise – I just couldn’t think of a better word) on the 33-year-old Russian defenseman last summer. And while Medvedev showed flashes at certain points, his lack of playing time at the end of the season was telling that the marriage just wasn’t going to work out. Getting his cap hit off the books puts a nice chunk of change in the Flyers’ pocket. Plus, his recent legal issues certainly don’t help his cause of returning to Philadelphia. He just seems ticketed for a return home to Russia and the KHL.

Verdict: GO

Michal Neuvirth
2015-16 stats: 18-8-4, 2.27, .924 SV%; Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $1.625 mm cap hit

Dougherty: See above. Neither goaltender is leaving. A Mason-Neuvirth tandem puts the Flyers in good hands. Both have injury history, too, so keeping both makes a ton of sense. Neuvirth was signed here last summer to push Mason and give the Flyers a solid backup. He proved to be far more than that. As noted above, he’ll push Mason even harder this season.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Neuvirth carries solid trade stock and will be a nice card for the Flyers to play up until the deadline. I could see Hextall pulling off a surprising move this offseason but, more than likely, the Flyers will have both their goalies entering the 2016-17 season.
 
Verdict
: STAY

Paone: Neuvirth played extremely well last season when healthy. He was sterling in his three playoff starts. But healthy is the key word there as his troubling career arc of not being able to stay healthy at key moments continued. But he’ll be back. Why? See that Mason part above. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Verdict: STAY

Michael Raffl
2015-16 stats: 82 GP, 13 G, 18 A; Contract: Signed through 2019-20, $2.35 mm cap hit

Dougherty: Raffl isn’t going anywhere. He signed an extension before the trade deadline last season, as Hextall decided extending Raffl made more sense than moving him. He’s well-liked in the room and has enough skill to move up-and-down the lineup. He’s a keeper.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Raffl is coming off a quietly good season in which he was the only Flyer to play all 82 regular-season games while compiling a plus-9 rating, best among the team’s regulars. And, of course, he signed an extension, so he’s here to stay.
 
Verdict: STAY

Paone: This is an easy one as Raffl, recently a pending unrestricted free agent, signed a three-year extension just prior to the trade deadline. The question isn’t whether he stays. It’s where he plays. If  history is any indication, there might not be a rock-solid answer to that as Raffl has moved from wing to center and line to line numerous times. He’s like the Flyers’ version of a Swiss Army Knife.

Verdict: STAY