The 17 runs were great, but Aaron Nola's performance was even better

The 17 runs were great, but Aaron Nola's performance was even better

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Citizens Bank Park rocked like the good ol' days of Jimmy, Chase and Ryan on Saturday night thanks to an offensive explosion that saw the home team score a club-record 12 runs in the first inning en route to a 17-3 victory over the Washington Nationals in front of a giddy crowd of 37,241.
 
But in the grand scheme, the Phillies' offensive deluge was really just a subplot to what mattered most.
 
Aaron Nola returned to the mound in a regular season game for the first time since going to the sidelines with an elbow injury July 28, 2016, and the right-hander, hugely important to this team in the present and future, put a lot of minds at ease with six strong innings of work.
 
"The big story for me was Nola," manager Pete Mackanin said. "I think he needed a good performance for his own confidence and I saw a lot of what we’re looking for out of him."
 
Nola commanded his pitches down in the zone and had some of that old tail on his two-seam fastball. He gave up three runs on seven hits and two walks. He struck out seven.
 
Nola got a nice lift from third baseman Maikel Franco, who turned a nifty 5-3 double play to get the pitcher out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. The Phillies' bats then went crazy against Jeremy Guthrie in the bottom of the inning and Nola took a 12-0 lead to the mound in the second inning. He responded by striking out the side.
 
"I felt really good with my pitches tonight (and) pretty much with my command," Nola said. "I missed (his spots) with a couple of pitches that got hit and they scored some runs. But my body felt great. It just felt great to get back out at Citizens Bank again.

"I'm healthy. I know a lot of people are wondering, or have been wondering, or are still wondering, but I'm healthy. And I feel great. I just want to stay healthy and maintain that for the remainder of the year."
 
Nola was also part of the Phillies' offensive onslaught. He had one of the team's 15 hits, drew a walk and scored two runs, one of which came in the biggest first inning in team history.
 
"Any time you score runs like that it’s going to be giddy and electric," Nola said. "It was fun. The dugout was fun."
 
Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders and Tommy Joseph all had two hits in the first inning. Kendrick had a bases-loaded triple in the inning. Saunders finished the night with a single, double and triple. Cam Rupp and Andres Blanco both homered in the game.
 
Joseph came into the game 0 for 13 on the young season. Both of his hits in the first inning drove in runs. Blanco playfully left two game balls, dated and marked with Hit 1 and Hit 2, in Joseph's locker after the game.
 
"It was kind of incredible," Joseph said of the first inning. "Just one of those things that kept going and going and escalated. It was really fun to be a part of. Even Nola was a part of it, too, which was pretty awesome. It was a lot of fun to see what we were able to do."
 
It was not fun for Guthrie. His 38th birthday got off to a good start when he was summoned from the minors to make the spot start for Washington. It went downhill shortly after taking the mound. He faced 12 batters in the first inning and only got two outs. He allowed 10 base runners and 10 runs.
 
Guthrie has pitched 12 seasons in the majors, but spent all of last season in the minors and went to spring training as a non-roster player with Washington. It's not unreasonable to wonder if he'll ever pitch in the majors again.
 
"It's just a huge disappointment to put that kind of effort forward," Guthrie said. "Warming up, I had every anticipation that today would be a good day on the mound, and it just wasn't.
 
"I didn't locate early, and the first couple guys got hits. And after that, finding the strike zone seemed like a real struggle. When I found it, it was more of the zone than it was an actual location. And the stuff wasn't crisp. I always knew I was one pitch away, but that one pitch just never came."
 
The Phillies' big first inning came after they scored six unanswered runs after being down 7-0 in Friday's series opener.
 
"Honestly, I think it's a testament to what we did yesterday being down seven runs and coming back," Saunders said. "We didn't win the game but getting within one swing of the bat and getting to their bullpen and carrying that momentum into today was big."
 
The assignment will be a lot more difficult for the Phillies when they face Stephen Strasburg in the series finale Sunday afternoon.
 
Maybe the Phillies should have eased up Saturday night and saved a few runs.
 
"No," Saunders said. "You're never content."

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

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A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."