Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Having already been assured a playoff spot,
the Flyers technically have little more to play for than the pride of
conference and division titles, the latter of which can be wrapped up
tonight (based on this scenario), and of course home-ice advantage. But there is also plenty they can unofficially gain over their final three games. 

A few weeks ago, the only uncertainty with this team was which goalie
would be in net. Today, that's about the most concrete answer we know
(btw, Bob starts again tonight in Ottawa). All of sudden, there are a
few new injuries, though none are believed to be too serious, and Chris
Pronger is still out after a setback of sorts with his hand. Other
sources of uncertainty include the team's record at home recently, their
inability to do anything on the power play, an overall tapering off in
scoring, failure to beat teams seven or more slots below them in the
standings, and what, if anything, can be divined from all of these games
ending in shootouts recently.

Let's take a look at a few of these questions, as well as the recent
news on Michael Leighton, with absolutely no promises of actually
answering them. That's presumably what the next three games are for,
although I'm betting we probably won't know anything for sure about this
team until the first round of the playoffs. 

Bob, Boosh, and... Leights? 
First, Sergei
Bobrovsky is your playoff starter, and he'll probably play two of the
remaining games, or all three. After a swoon, he's been quite good
lately, and there's little reason to think Peter Laviolette is wavering
on him. Not even the surprise placement of Michael Leighton on re-entry
waivers should affect the playoff goalie situation, although I
admittedly am not sure why the team is exposing him to the process at
this time. If claimed by another team, the Flyers will be on the hook
for half of the AHL-hot Leighton's salary for another team. However,
Leights is ineligible to play for any of those teams in the upcoming
playoffs, so it's no slam dunk he'll be picked up in the next day. Are
the Flyers just looking to add him for injury depth? Clear half his
salary and some space for AHL goalie development of another goalie with a
longer-term timetable? I assume it's the insurance angle, but I'll tell
you when someone else tells me, because I'm really not sure what the
goal is here. The sting of seeing the roster hit by several injuries at
once is a good reminder of the wear and tear that is on the way though.
CSN's Sarah Baicker says that if Leighton clears, he'll play in one of
the two remaining games. 

Shootout Obscura
We've already gone over the
reasons we don't like the shootout, and yesterday, Peter Laviolette said
essentially the same thing about them—it's really quite hard to evaluate the outcome
of a game that ends in a shootout. Even those of us who are
dyed-in-the-wool shootout haters can lapse into counting any loss
collectively as an L. But as we've pointed out before, these particular
outcomes have very little to do with what will occur when it really
counts, as there is no shootout format in the playoffs. I say "very
little" as opposed to "not at all" because one fact still haunts the
Flyers more than the sight of a gifted scorer tripping over his own
stick to blow the decisive shot attempt—the Flyers should have been
winning many of those games in the first 60 minutes of play.

While the homer in me has been leaning toward the shootout results
obscuring the Flyers' not actually losing, those outcomes have done just
as much to hide the fact that the Flyers aren't winning by two and
three goals against teams they should be clearly better than. When the
shootout is removed, will these games still be going into OT, or can the
Flyers get back to outplaying their opponents enough in regulation to
just effing win? In any case, I'll be ecstatic when the regular season
is over, because the shootout will be gone with it, and we'll actually
be able to discuss who did or didn't win on the morning after. 

Superiority Complex
In all likelihood, the Flyers
will play either one of the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference
in the opening round. If not, we'll have seen a dreadful week.
Considering both the seventh and the eighth seeded teams won round one
last season, being a top seed is not necessarily a sunrise on the
horizon. We don't presently know which direction the Flyers are headed
in, and it's suddenly not out of the question that they might be last
year's Capitals. I'm not inclined to think so, but I can safely be
labeled an optimist when it comes to these things. It's rare that a one
seed backs its way into the playoffs, but the Flyers will fit that
description almost regardless to what happens in these final three
games, short of three straight decisive wins. Even then, we've seen
enough lackluster play that there will be concerns come game one.

The Flyers face three supposedly inferior teams this week, starting
tonight in Ottawa. On Sunday, we went over the reasons why a matchup
with the Rangers should be the perfect catalyst to get their blood
moving. The Flyers were decent in the game, but it wasn't the showing we
were looking for. Considering the amount of Flyers-Senators footage you
can find on YouTube, maybe tonight is a little more what the doctor
ordered?

PECO Has a Complaint About Its Bill
Watching the
Flyers' power play, I can't help but think what a microcosm of the
team's issues this is. Their overall dip in scoring can be tied to the
fact that they're not doing a damn thing on the man advantage lately.
Why is this microcosmic to me? Because I can't understand at all what
the freaking problem is. Part of it comes with the fact that most people
who follow hockey, fans and media alike, lack a true understanding of
the X's and O's of this very fluid sport at the professional level. I
admit to being in this camp, and the power play is how I know my
shortcomings. I cannot for the life of me figure out why a team stacked
with 20-goal scorers and a few 30/30 men can't score when the other team
has fewer players on the ice than they do, nor what they should be
doing differently to fix it. I'm this close to becoming one of
those fans who just yells SHOOT because I have no idea what else to say.
(Incidentally, it's not "Shoot!" The Flyers have been doing that, but
not with any amount of success.) 

In any case, if there's any one thing this team needs to get in order
above all else, it's the power play. Another goal a game would really
change the complexion of regulation play, which right now has the Flyers
going end to end with opponents scrapping for scoring chances and then
sitting back on defense. With the game tied, opposing teams seem to be
taking fewer chances, which gives the Flyers less ability to use their
great counter-attack to generate offense. There's also no margin of
error for the fluke goals that have plagued the Flyers, such as the
three that have gone in off skates in the past two games.

Will the return of Pronger and Briere help? It should, as they're
among the better PP guys on the team. However, this dip in man advantage
productivity pre-dates Pronger's injury and certainly Briere's. 

The Final Three
Only one of the Flyers' remaining
three games comes against a possible playoff opponent, and that's
Friday in Buffalo. The Sabres could be hungry for their playoff lives
(currently the eighth seed) but Ryan Miller is dealing with an injury
and his availability is uncertain. There is no good reason for the
Flyers not to win at least two of three here and finish with the top
seed in the East. However, they've been losing for bad reasons ranging
from the stupid shootout to the woes on the power play, and a penchant
for making backup goalies look like Dominik Hasek.

More than anything, I'm hoping the final three games serve to get us
ready for the playoffs. I'm not sure that, win or lose, these outcomes
can change much for the team. But it felt great when we were all riding
high, and I want that shit back heading into the playoffs.

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera leads off for first time in 84 games

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera leads off for first time in 84 games

A day after going 0 for 5 with five strikeouts, Odubel Herrera is leading off for the Phillies in their series opener Friday night against the Reds (see game notes).

It's the first time Herrera is leading off since last Aug. 19, a span of 84 games.

Cesar Hernandez gets the night off, with Andres Blanco batting second and playing second.

Maikel Franco is back in the six-hole after going 1 for 5 with two strikeouts in the cleanup spot Thursday. Tommy Joseph bats fourth and Michael Saunders fifth.

Cameron Rupp, who walked three times in Thursday's win over the Rockies, catches Aaron Nola and bats seventh.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Andres Blanco, 2B
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Maikel Franco, 3B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Aaron Nola, P

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Aaron Nola looks to build on extremely impressive return from DL

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Aaron Nola looks to build on extremely impressive return from DL

Phillies (16-29) vs. Reds (22-24)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Following their first win in a week, the Phillies open a new series this weekend against a beatable team in the Cincinnati Reds, who are 3-9 in their last 12 games and 1-7 in their last eight road games.

Let's have ourselves a look-see:

1. Nola's turn
Aaron Nola is on the mound tonight for his second start since a month-long DL stint. He was extremely impressive his last time out, allowing one run on four hits over seven innings in Pittsburgh.

Nola's fastball reached as high as 95.5 mph against the Pirates, which is notable because he threw only two pitches faster than 94 mph all of last season. His velocity was up before the lower back strain and it's a great sign that the elbow injury which ended his 2016 season is truly in the past.

In Pittsburgh, Nola (2-1, 3.52) threw 19 of 27 first-pitch strikes. He got 11 outs on the first three pitches of at-bats. 

He's faced the Reds twice in his career and dominated them both times, allowing two earned runs in 14 innings with one walk and 17 strikeouts.

Current Reds have gone 7 fo 39 (.179) against him with just two extra-base hits. Joey Votto is 0 for 5.

2. What to do with Odubel
Pete Mackanin has an interesting decision to make this weekend with slumping Odubel Herrera, who on Thursday became the first player in the majors this season to go 0 for 5 with five strikeouts in a game.

Herrera is down to .226 on the season with a .275 on-base percentage. In May, he's hit .194 with one walk and 28 strikeouts.

Mackanin could bench Herrera like he did with Maikel Franco for two games earlier this week. It would send a message to the player that poor at-bats and wild swings have consequences. And, quite frankly, sitting Herrera for a day or two might give the Phillies a better chance to win.

The issue, of course, is that there's a thin line between giving a player a chance to clear his head and ridding him of opportunities to get back on track.

Plus, the Phillies don't have great options in replacing Herrera in the lineup. They have a four-man bench at the moment and the only options would be putting Ty Kelly or Brock Stassi in left field and moving Aaron Altherr to center.

(Update: Mackanin is taking the opposite approach with Herrera, leading him off Friday night.)

Herrera just has not been himself this season and it's troubling. At this point last season, Herrera was hitting .327 with a .901 OPS. He's been an undisciplined hitter in 2017 and when you have two of them in the middle of the lineup in Herrera and Franco, it makes things really easy on pitchers at times.

Herrera started the year hot, hitting in his first eight games. Since then, he's hit .203/.239/.324 in 155 plate appearances with six walks and 42 K's.

3. Tommy time
Tommy Joseph has been one of the very best hitters in baseball this month, batting .329/.400/.671 with six doubles, six homers and 15 RBIs in 22 games.

He's 148 games and 499 plate appearances into his major-league career and has hit .257 with 23 doubles, 28 homers, 69 RBIs and an .804 OPS. That's about 10 points higher than the league average OPS from first basemen over that span.

Had Joseph's April slump continued into May, prospect Rhys Hoskins might have already been called up. But Joseph has done enough so far to hold off Hoskins, who appears to have more upside because of his combination of power and plate selection.

Controlling the strike zone is the next step for Joseph. He has a .311 OBP so far with 33 walks and 112 strikeouts as a Phillie.

But over the last two seasons, he's been one of the few Phils who's taken advantage of this ballpark. Joseph's hit .276 with an .844 OPS at Citizens Bank Park compared to .240 with a .769 OPS on the road.

4. Scouting the Reds
The Phillies face 29-year-old Reds right-hander Tim Adleman (2-2, 6.19).

You look at the ERA and think, OK, maybe the Phillies' bats will wake up tonight. But keep in mind that the Rockies' four starting pitchers this week entered the series with a combined 5.27 ERA and the Phillies scored three runs against them in 27 innings.

There's nothing special about the 6-foot-5 Adleman. He throws his fastball and sinker in the 88 to 91 mph range with a mid-80s changeup and mid-70s curveball. His opponents have hit .300 against his fastball and have eight extra-base hits with a .290 batting average against his changeup.

In six starts this season, Adleman's yet to go deeper than six innings. The Phils faced him last season and scored three runs in five innings. Cesar Hernandez went 2 for 2 with a walk and Franco went 1 for 3 with a double.

As for Cincinnati's offense, Votto is obviously the hitter you worry about most. He's hit .299/.422/.591 this season with 12 doubles, 12 homers, 38 RBIs, 35 walks and 24 strikeouts. A typical Votto season.

Shortstop Zack Cozart has been surprisingly hot these first two months, hitting .340 with 20 extra-base hits, 22 walks and 29 strikeouts. It's most surprising to see him walking this much because he never has. He's 15 walks away from matching his career high.

Leftfielder Adam Duvall has killed the Phillies over the last two seasons. He went 5 for 11 with two doubles and a homer in the season-opening series in Cincy and went 8 for 18 with four doubles against them last season.

5. This and that
• Over the last seven games, the Phillies' bullpen has allowed just two earned runs in 22⅔ innings.

• Howie Kendrick started at third base for Lehigh Valley during his rehab assignment Thursday. He was hit by two pitches and removed from the game.  

• Reds closer Raisel Iglesias is one of the most underrated relievers in baseball. He's 8 for 8 in save chances this season with a 0.73 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. He's struck out 28 and allowed just one home run in 24⅔ innings. His ability to go multiple innings is what makes him stand out — he's Andrew Miller-like in that regard. Iglesias has pitched more than one inning in 7 of his 19 appearances.