3 Stars: Lethal special teams strike again as Flyers complete weekend sweep of Penguins

3 Stars: Lethal special teams strike again as Flyers complete weekend sweep of Penguins

A look at the Philadelphia Flyers' 4-3 victory over the hated, intrastate rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh from the perspective of three players.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Man, did the linesman ever dodge a bullet when Sidney Crosby’s tip-in the waning seconds hit the post and didn’t tie the game. Evgeni Malkin was so far offside on the play that he was basically in Ohio.

3. Marc-Andre Fleury

The Penguins netminder didn’t have his best performance of the season on Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia but had the chance to rebound on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

A peek at Fleury’s stats from Sunday show he made 12 saves on 15 shots. Not bad, right? The thing is those 12 saves on 15 shots came in the first 13:41 of a first period the Flyers dominated.

Fleury was pulled at that point after giving up Wayne Simmonds’ second power-play goal of the game but the score wasn’t the netminder’s fault. It was a mercy pulling by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. The Flyers were running roughshod over the Penguins and Bylsma had to do something so he but backup Jeff Zatkoff in to try and turn things around, which almost happened.

Fleury actually played pretty well for Pittsburgh when he was in the game. He let up three goals but made numerous A-plus stops that kept Pittsburgh in the game at the time. He had no shot on Brayden Schenn’s opening tally off a scramble and bad things happen when Mr. Simmonds is in his office.

2. Matt Read

A second game this weekend against the Penguins, a second impressive performance Read, who punctuated his weekend with Sunday’s game-winning goal.

With the Penguins on a power play midway through the second period, Luke Schenn hopped on a turnover and sprung Read and Sean Couturier on a two-on-one break. Instead of forcing a pass to Couturier, Read sniped the top corner of the net over Zatkoff’s glove for a shorthanded goal.

Not only was it the game-winning goal, it was Read’s second shorthanded goal of the weekend and his third goal of the weekend overall.

Goals are always nice, but the work Read and Couturier did against the Penguins’ top-ranked power play over the last two games was as good as it gets. The Penguins’ vaunted power play went 0-for-9 over the weekend thanks in large part to Read and Couturier, the Flyers’ special teams aces.

Also of note, Crosby and Malkin combined for – wait for it, wait for it – zero points on the weekend.

[nbcsports_video src=http://player.theplatform.com/p/C_ZQDC/OBXnIiiPouAX/embed/select/sLzLHRMBwAGt?params=zone%3Dcsnvideo&autoPlay=true width=620 height=339]

1. Wayne Simmonds

As mentioned above, bad things happen to opponents when Mr. Simmonds is in his office in front of the net.

On Sunday, Mr. Simmonds set up shop in Pittsburgh and his office was open for business.

Simmonds tipped a point shot from Kimmo Timonen through Fleury’s legs for a power-play goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead midway through the first period. Just under seven minutes later, he spun in front of the net and powered the puck through Fleury for another power-play goal, gave the Flyers a 3-0 lead and ended Fleury’s day.

The goals were Simmonds’ 20th and 21st of the season. His career high is 28 in 2011-12. He now has 12 power-play goals on the year, which ties him for third most in the league.

Simmonds also assisted on Schenn’s opening tally to round out a three-point day.

Know any bitter Penguins fans?  There are a lot of them out there.

Be sure to remind them that the Flyers are now 10-2-1 (including playoffs) in Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center since it opened in October 2010.

Can’t stress enough how you should rub that fact in the faces of any Penguins fans you see at school or work on Monday.

The Phanatic scared the bejesus out of Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show

savannahguthrie-phanatic.jpg

The Phanatic scared the bejesus out of Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show

Perhaps the best thing about the Democratic National Convention descending upon the city of Philadelphia this week is the fact that the Phillie Phanatic can just pop up anywhere, at any given moment and scare the bejesus out of people.

That happened on the Today Show when Savannah Guthrie didn't see it coming.

That Carson Daly guy looked pretty spooked too while Al Roker is cool as a cucumber. Al knows.

Roundtable: Which young player makes least sense for Phillies to trade?

Roundtable: Which young player makes least sense for Phillies to trade?

Earlier this week, ESPN.com looked around baseball and came up with each team's most "untouchable" player. For contending teams, the untouchable player could have been a prospect — for example, Boston's representative was Yoan Moncada, a player who shouldn't be moved even in a win-now trade. Makes sense. He's the Red Sox version of J.P. Crawford.

But for selling teams, the focus was mainly on the 25-man roster. ESPN's David Schoenfield listed Aaron Nola as the Phillies' most untouchable player, despite the 4.75 ERA. 

I saw that and disagreed. Nola is a valuable piece, sure, and he's better and will be better than his current ERA indicates. But there are a couple players who should be regarded as even more untouchable than Nola. To see if this opinion was shared, I turned to three of my colleagues, all baseball people for Comcast SportsNet or CSNPhilly.com. (Only players currently on the Phils' 25-man roster were considered.)

Phillies insider Jim Salisbury — 3B Maikel Franco
I'm a believer in building around pitching and the idea that you can never have enough of it. But given the strides this team has made in adding what looks mostly like mid-rotation starting pitching depth — valuable but mid-rotation, nonetheless — and its continuing shortcomings on offense, I would make Maikel Franco my untouchable at this deadline.

He's had his ups and downs this season, but at 23, he is still a young, developing hitter with lots of upside. He leads the club in homers and RBIs while being a marked man in a lineup that provides little protection. Some of the adjustments he made after a difficult month of May suggest that he has the ability to improve his selectivity and that will speed his development.

The Phillies have been starving for a homegrown, middle-of-the-order, right-handed power bat almost from the time of Mike Schmidt, who, incidentally, sees MVP potential in Franco. Whether he stays at third, where he shows an excellent throwing arm and soft hands, or becomes an option at first base because of range concerns, Franco is an untouchable right now. 

Phillies Clubhouse producer Brian Brennan — CF Odubel Herrera
The Phillies have a wealth of talented young starting pitchers, so the guy I'd least want to part with is Odubel Herrera.
 
I think the potential is there for a perennial .850 OPS centerfielder who's a perfect fit at the top of a lineup. Herrera is on pace to score 90 runs this season without any consistent production elsewhere in the lineup. Once you add in J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams to pair with Herrera and Franco, you've got the makings of a dynamic top of the order for years to come. 

Herrera is currently fourth among MLB centerfielders in on-base percentage, behind only Mike Trout, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Yoenis Cespedes. Herrera is younger than all of them.
 
Herrera could be the National League's version of Mookie Betts if everything breaks right. He needs to hit a lot more doubles to get there, but I think he has the ability to hit 30 to 35 doubles in a season. He's under team control for four more seasons and that's a guy I'd be very unwilling to trade.  

Phillies Pregame/Postgame Live host Marshall Harris — 3B Maikel Franco
For me it's Franco. You're not going anywhere in today's game without a good offense and Franco is a solid building block to that end.

I realize that he's having a worse offensive year this year compared to 2015. But his errors are down compared to a year ago as he's proving himself to be an above-average defender at the hot corner. The Phillies have a plethora of young rotation arms ready to go, while the same can't be said about third basemen in the MiLB pipeline.

Franco isn't arbitration-eligible until 2018 and won't hit free agency until the 2022 season. At age 23, he's exactly the type of player you want to build around going forward. Even if he's not the best player on this team when it contends again, why would you not want a 30-plus HR player somewhere in your lineup?

Corey Seidman — OK, I'll play devil's advocate, SP Vince Velasquez
My answer would be Franco, as well, but I might even put Vince Velasquez ahead of Nola in terms of untouchability.

I just see more upside in Velasquez. This has been an up-and-down season for the 24-year-old right-hander, but even after a bad run in late May and an injury, Velasquez is 8-2 with a 3.34 ERA in 17 starts. 

Velasquez ranks ninth among National League starters with a swinging strike rate of 11.6 percent, ahead of guys like Stephen Strasburg, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Jacob deGrom. 

Velasquez has also struck out 27.2 percent of the batters he's faced, which is the eighth-highest strikeout rate in the NL. 

What's most impressive about Velasquez's ability to miss bats is that he usually does it without walking people. Even after walking eight batters in his last 13 innings, Velasquez has a K/BB ratio of 103 to 34 in 91⅔ innings this season. For his career, he has 161 K's and 55 walks, nearly a 3:1 ratio. 

If Velasquez can ever put it all together and find a way to get deeper into games consistently, he could be an ace or high-end No. 2 starter. He has more upside than Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Zach Eflin or Jake Thompson because he can pick up a strikeout at any time with that mid-90s fastball that has some late life and zip.

And if it turns out Velasquez never does put it all together, he could be a very good closer. That's what makes the Ken Giles trade so confusing. If the Astros so badly wanted a young, inexpensive fireballer in the back end of their bullpen, they could have simply converted Velasquez into a full-time reliever.

Future Phillies Report: Nick Williams reducing strikeout rate, still showing pop

Future Phillies Report: Nick Williams reducing strikeout rate, still showing pop

An impressive year for the Phillies' farm system continued this week with the promotions of two of their second base prospects, Jesmuel Valentin and Scott Kingery. Valentin replaced Taylor Featherston at Triple A when Featherston took Andres Blanco's spot on the Phils' roster, and Kingery replaced Valentin at Double A.

Valentin is a former first-round pick and Kingery was the Phils' second-rounder in 2015. It's a good sign for the organization that even their second-tier prospects are advancing up the chain.

But in this last Future Phillies Report before the non-waiver trade deadline, let's take a look at how the Phils' most intriguing prospects have been performing lately.

OF Nick Williams (AAA)
Williams' call-up could be coming soon. He continues to hit, he continues to show power, and he's even reduced his strikeout rate lately.

Williams has punched out just nine times in his last 17 games, a span of 67 plate appearances. He has 90 K's on the season in 395 plate appearances, which really isn't that egregiously high of a strikeout rate. Still, the Phillies wanted to see less swing-and-miss from him and lately he's obliged.

Williams' power was slow to emerge this season as he was playing in the coldest conditions of his life, but things changed right around the second week of May. Over his last 70 games, Williams has hit .289 with a .489 slugging percentage, hitting 26 doubles, three triples and eight home runs. His run production has increased each month.

Defensively, Williams has been playing a lot of left field lately. It makes sense because that's the position he is most likely to play when he's called up to the majors. Odubel Herrera is in center field for the Phillies and Aaron Altherr will be the regular rightfielder the final two months. And so 15 of Williams' last 26 games have been in left field.

He has the defensive ability to play all three outfield spots, but Williams likes center field the most, saying the various routes a CF takes make him feel like more of an athlete than he does in the corner outfield. 

But it's his bat more than anything else that has gotten Williams this far in his pro career. He's knocking on the door to the majors and should be added to the 40-man roster soon.

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
Crawford has slowed a bit after a month-long hot streak, going 6 for 36, all singles, in his last 10 games. He's hitting .261/.336/.346 through 60 games at Triple A and .262/.360/.362 in 96 total games this season.

Defensively, Crawford has not been as sound over the last few weeks, committing six errors in his last 20 games after having just two in his first 40 at Triple A. 

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said earlier this week that it wasn't a consideration to bring up Crawford when Blanco got hurt. That may frustrate some Phillies fans, but there's just no need to rush him to the majors while he's not hitting. The Phils have to be confident that when they're ready to promote these guys — Crawford, Williams, Jake Thompson — that they're ready to hit the ground running and stick in The Show. So far, Crawford has held his own at Triple A but hasn't dominated. And that's no big deal considering he's 5.6 years younger than the average age in the International League.

Crawford could see some time with the Phils in September. But he's not going to be handed any sort of job just because he's long been considered a top prospect. The fact remains that at the minors' two highest levels, Crawford has hit .264/.357/.384. He's yet to truly break out the way most top-five prospects do. 

SP Jake Thompson (AAA)
Thompson wasn't going to stay perfect forever and his ridiculous run of four earned runs in 62⅓ innings ended in his last start Tuesday. Thompson gave up three runs in the first inning and five in five innings, but still got the win thanks to a big offensive night from the IronPigs.

Through 20 starts at Triple A, Thompson is 10-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. A good sign was that even in defeat, eight of 10 balls put into play against Thompson were groundballs. Over his last 10 starts, Thompson has a 1.20 ERA and a groundball rate of 51 percent. 

That one misstep will not change the Phillies' opinions about Thompson's readiness for a call-up. All that is standing in the way is Jeremy Hellickson, who could very well be traded by the Aug. 1 deadline. 

And even if Hellickson isn't dealt, it would not be at all surprising to see the Phillies go to a six-man rotation at some point in mid-to-late August to keep their young pitchers' innings in check. Aaron Nola is on pace for 167, which isn't too bad. But Jerad Eickhoff is on pace for 200, which is a bit much in his first full season. Vince Velasquez is on pace for 20 more innings than he's ever thrown.

CF Roman Quinn (AA)
Quinn is back on the field after missing seven weeks with an oblique injury. He began a rehab assignment Monday in the Gulf Coast League and went 2 for 6 with a walk, a steal and two runs in two games. 

The Phillies are hoping Quinn can stay healthy for the remainder of the season because this was another year in which he lost valuable at-bats. Quinn has never played in more than 88 games in a season, which must be frustrating for such a talented and versatile player. Quinn is a switch-hitter who has the best speed and CF defense in the Phillies' farm system and also has deceptive power. 

Look for him to play some winter ball to make up for some of that lost time. Quinn played 25 games in the Dominican Winter League in 2015. 

OF Mickey Moniak (GCL)
The Phillies' first overall pick has performed as advertised so far, hitting .321/.389/.429 in 95 plate appearances in Rookie ball. The Phillies saw Moniak as a high-floor, high-ceiling high school bat, saying that he was safer than many of the top college hitters available in the draft. 

He may never hit for power, but he's quickly translated his hit tool from the California HS circuit to the minors' lowest level.

C Jorge Alfaro (AA)
Alfaro had a four-hit night with three RBIs Wednesday to raise his season batting line to .295/.333/.480. It's been a great first year in the Phillies' system for the powerful catcher, who has proven he can stay on the field, playing pretty much every day since May 7.

Alfaro hasn't gotten as hot as he was to start the year, when he went 18 for 36 with six extra-base hits and 10 RBIs in his first eight games, but he's also avoided lengthy slumps. He's spent much of the season with a batting average hovering around .300, which is a good sign considering that tool is behind his raw power and arm. There seems to be a near consensus that Alfaro can, in a few years, be a catcher who controls the running game and hits 20 to 25 home runs. If he can do that with a high batting average as well, you'll be looking at one of the game's most valuable pieces.

Alfaro is already on the 40-man roster, so he could see some time in the majors in September even though he's yet to play at Triple A.

OF Dylan Cozens, 1B Rhys Hoskins (AA)
Hoskins has 29 homers and 92 RBIs. Cozens has 26 and 88. Both are going to reach 30 and 100, barring unforeseen circumstances. Those are the kind of numbers that get you noticed and promoted, even if you have glaring weaknesses, too.

For both players, that weakness is a penchant to swing and miss. Cozens has 124 K's in 376 at-bats, essentially one every three ABs. Hoskins' rate isn't quite as high — he's pretty much in line with Williams.

Hoskins is the older of the two and will be 24 next March. The expectation is that both will get invites to big-league camp, and if Hoskins really stands out, perhaps he battles with Tommy Joseph for everyday 1B duty next season. The Phils are going to want to see sooner rather than later what they have in Hoskins. If he's called up next season, he'd be the same age Joseph was when the Phils promoted him.

RHP Jimmy Cordero (AA)
The hard-throwing right-handed reliever acquired by the Phillies from the Blue Jays in last summer's Ben Revere trade was promoted to Double A Reading earlier this week after pitching eight games with High A Clearwater.

Cordero missed the first three months of the season with an arm injury but has made 11 appearances since July 1. He's shown some rust, allowing seven runs and walking seven in 13⅔ innings to go along with 12 strikeouts.

Because he is already on the 40-man roster like Alfaro, the Phils could take a look at Cordero in September even though he hasn't pitched much this season.

The Phillies have stockpiled a lot of prospects over the last two years and the often overlooked position group in all of that has been relief arms. With Cordero, Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano (acquired with Valentin from the Dodgers for Roberto Hernandez in August 2014), the Phils are hoping to build a late relief corps that can rack up strikeouts. Arano has a 2.40 ERA with 68 K's in 60 innings this season at Clearwater.