Meltdown: Flyers Blow Three-Goal First-Period Lead versus Loathsome Penguins

Meltdown: Flyers Blow Three-Goal First-Period Lead versus Loathsome Penguins

This is the definition of letting one slip away.

The Flyers jumped out to a 4-1 first-period lead over the
Pittsburgh Penguins in what was arguably the most dominant 20 minutes of hockey
they have played all season. Orange sweaters swarmed the road whites, their
dominance at both ends of the ice helping to create an 18-4 shots advantage,
while the combination of dumb penalties by James Neal and the leaky goaltending
of Marc-Andre Fleury forced the scoreboard operator to earn his paycheck.

But if you happened to catch a Flyers-Penguins tilt at any
point in the last year, you had to know there was a good chance this one wasn’t
over yet. Sure enough Pittsburgh racked up four consecutive goals – three in
the second, then the decisive tally 18 seconds into the third – which were enough
to steal a 5-4 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.

Tough to say whether the problem was the Flyers actively deciding
to sit on their lead, or if the Penguins were simply able to dial up the
pressure. Most likely it was a bit of both. Not much a team can do about a highly-skilled
opponent awakening from their slumber, but Peter Laviolette’s troops seemed
content at times to continue chipping the puck out of their zone rather than
attempt move up with it. If that was indeed the case, then a cardinal sin was
committed here.

Give the Pens their due though. As much as the Flyers
bullied them at the start, Crosby and mates finally grew a set and dominated on
the forecheck coming out of the intermission. If Philly wasn’t going on the
attack, it was at least in part because their opponent was buzzing around the
ice. Pitt turned the tables in period two, outshooting the Flyers 12-3, and
they were never quite able to regain that early momentum.

Dan Bylsma’s decision to pull Fleury following his
disastrous start, while a no-brainer, provided a boost for the Penguins as
well. He looked rattled on goal number three in particular, a soft snap shot from
the point by Kimmo Timonen that trickled through the goaltender. Tomas Vokoun
replaced Fleury after the break, faring much better than he did when the two
teams met a few weeks ago... then again, he only faced 14 shots.

Ilya Bryzgalov would join Fleury on the bench toward the end
of the second frame, although it’s hard to pin the loss on the cosmonaut’s
performance. James Neal banked his 15th goal of the season in off of Braydon
Coburn to cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to one, and Tyler Kennedy knotted the score
while Bryz was blinded by Brandon Sutter and Bruno Gervais in front. Brian
Boucher replaced Billy nonetheless, eventually surrendering the clincher on
the first shot he faced.

The Flyers opened the third period with a solid scoring
chance, but it wound up backfiring thanks to a bad judgment call by Timonen.
The veteran blueliner pinched up on a puck that likely would have cleared the
zone anyway, a mistake he compounded by whiffing on the puck. The error led to
a two-on-one the other way, leaving Boosh virtually no chance as Chris Kunitz
fired home his 14th.

It’s always difficult to stomach losses like this,
especially given the opponent. And you don’t even want to think about it right
now, but there are obvious repercussions in the standings. This is
Flyers-Penguins hockey though, and while it’s not going to sit well, crazy
things have a way of unfolding. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into what
happened here.

Yet there was a definite turning point in this game after
the first period, and given how inconsistent the Flyers have been all season
long, it’s impossible to chalk it up under the old “just one game” excuse.
Whether it was an ill-advised change in their approach, or they simply showed
their true colors as an inferior team, the end result was inexcusable.

Notes

Jakub Voracek found the back of the net twice on
Philadelphia power plays, putting him back on top in the clubhouse with 14
tallies this season. He also led the way with seven shots.

Zac Rinaldo had his first-career two point game, slamming
home a goal and adding a helper. He finished with only two hits on the other
hand.

Nicklas Grossmann blocked five shots to extend his
league-leading total to 73.

>> BOX SCORE

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Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 34th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26 and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see paying players $200 million, $300 million, $400 million when the time comes?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35 and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017 “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him and the looming shadow of the ‘man’ in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).