Meaningless? No Bearing on Standings, Game 82 Still Carries Tone

Meaningless? No Bearing on Standings, Game 82 Still Carries Tone

Eighty-one games into the season and five games into the season series between the Flyers and Penguins, there's little more we can learn about where these two teams stand as they enter the playoffs. They played a week ago, they'll play again today, and on Wednesday, they'll faceoff for the first game of a best of seven series. If the league or NBC wanted more Flyers-Pens, they certainly got their wish, although perhaps a round or two early.
Today's matchup means absolutely nothing in terms of black and white postseason implications. These teams will meet in Pittsburgh, the fifth seed visiting the fourth. That scenario wasn't finalized until this past week, but it's been on the horizon for the past month. 
HOME ICE ADVANTAGE STILL UP FOR GRABS, KIND OFBut seeding and home ice advantage aren't necessarily the most important factors to establish entering the postseason. Today could still have more bearing on playoff success than either element. 
Why? Well, the Penguins have the home-ice advantage in the series, right? The Flyers have yet to lose in Pittsburgh's new igloo, going 5-0 since opening the building with a win last season. Today's starter for Philadelphia, Sergei Bobrovsky, was in net for each win. 
And yet, today's game could mean more than any of the previous five in terms of establishing the actual advantage of playing in Pittsburgh. If the Flyers win again, it would seem there is little, although the building will surely be more frenzied in a postseason setting. If the Pens win, any swagger the Flyers have based on their previous spoilers likely evaporates, pushing the "advantage" more toward neutral, if not back into Pittsburgh's favor. 
There's also the fact that the Flyers have fared better on the road than at home. The opposite is true for the Pens though, so it's likely a wash. And, no matter what their splits, no team sees starting on the road as an advantage. The Flyers have picked up their game at home, and the splits aren't that disparate to begin with. 
GOALIESPeter Laviolette and his crew have decided to rest Ilya Bryzgalov, who will be the team's starter in the postseason. Bryz played well in their win over Buffalo on Thursday, and certainly wasn't the reason they lost to the Rangers on Tuesday. So why isn't he starting today, with rest on the calendar before the playoffs start? It's a good question, yet not a decision many (including us) are actually questioning. 
With the tangible postseason elements now off the table, why not give a player with a chip fracture in his foot a day off from what could be a battle? It won't see him healed completely when the series begins, but he won't be any worse off, either. 
Resting Bryz also saves the slim chance that the Penguins might light him up. Not something anyone east of State College would want to see. 
And of course, there's the Bob Factor. Since getting his first-ever NHL start on the night Pittsburgh opened the CONSOL Energy Center, Bob has never lost there. I stole the graphic on the right from the Pensblog
Lavvy's stated reason for today's goaltending decision, per Sam Carchidi, is that Bryz looked sharp in his last game, and he wants to give the goalie a breather after a busy March. Works for me. 
Marc-Andre Fleury will start for the Penguins. 
ROUGH STUFF?The way the last meeting ended, coaches standing on the boards, breaking shit, it's reasonable to think there could be some fireworks today. But the teams could keep it close to the vest today, knowing the real show starts in the week ahead. 
Or, they could plan to keep it cool... Then have all hell break loose once the first questionable hit is thrown. Jody Shelley and Zac Rinaldo are both likely be in the lineup, unless Harry Z gets one of their slots. He was called up today.  (Update: See Giroux note below)
The Pens have called up Steve MacIntyre. With Joe Vitale now Flyers' enemy #1, he'll have another wingman in case he's targeted as revenge for his hits on Nick Grossmann and Danny Briere. 
ODDS & ENDSNo Grossmann today (day to day). Same goes for Briere (who knows). 
Claude Giroux has 93 points. An cool 95 would look damn fine on the Year Four line of his career totals.  
An even 40 goals would look pretty nice on Scott Hartnell's total. Especially because that'd mean Scottie racked a hat trick today. 
UPDATE: Looks like no G today. Multiple beats say he's not on the ice for warmups. 
4PM start on NBCSN. 

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.