Bats and bullpen push Phillies to win at Wrigley

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Bats and bullpen push Phillies to win at Wrigley

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CHICAGO – The Phillies came into Wrigley Field on the heels of two losses in Texas in which the bullpen could not protect a late lead.

So pretty much the last thing Phillies fans wanted to see Friday afternoon was Ryne Sandberg popping out of the dugout with one out in the sixth inning to remove a starting pitcher who was pitching with a lead and doing quite well.

Really? You’re entrusting this bullpen to get 11 outs, Ryno?

Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, Antonio Bastardo, Mario Hollands and Jeff Manship made Sandberg’s decision to go to the ‘pen early a good one, as they combined for 3 2/3 shutout innings in the Phillies’ 7-2 win over the Chicago Cubs at the 100th season opener at Wrigley Field (see Instant Replay).

The Phillies are 2-2 on the young season.

They’d be 4-0 if the bullpen had pitched as effectively in Texas as it did Friday at chilly Wrigley, where the game-time temperature was 38 degrees with a wind chill of 28.

The offense, a major concern in spring training, continued to click as the Phillies out-hit the Cubs, 11-3. Chase Utley belted a two-run homer to give the Phils the lead in the fifth inning and added an RBI single in the seventh. Utley is 7 for 18 (.389) on the young season. John Mayberry Jr. came off the bench with a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth to push the Phillies’ lead to four runs. Mayberry has four RBIs in two pinch-hit at-bats so far.

The extra cushion made life a little less stressful on the relievers, but there was no denying their effectiveness: None of them gave up a hit. Bastardo walked two batters in the eighth, but kept it together and rolled an inning-ending double play ball.

Roberto Hernandez became the second Phillies’ starter to get a win as he held the Cubs to two runs over 5 1/3 innings.

Hernandez was at 73 pitches when Sandberg came out to get him after he struck out the first batter in the bottom of the sixth.

The decision to remove Hernandez immediately raised eyebrows, but the manager had his reasons.

“I had an eye on him,” Sandberg said. “He hadn't really thrown to hitters in nine days because of rain. He had a simulated game in the cage in Florida, which wasn't real life at all. His velocity went down to 85, 86 (mph). He still had movement on the ball, but they had the middle of the lineup -- the left-handed bats -- coming up so I elected to go with Diekman there.”

The lefty Diekman made quick work of two lefty hitters and De Fratus, who hadn’t pitched since spring training, got the third on opening the bottom of the seventh.

The lefty hitters were a big concern to Sandberg because the wind was blowing out to right at 23 mph. He figured Diekman had a better chance of neutralizing them than Hernandez, a right-handed sinkerballer.

Sandberg said it took no extra nerve to go to his bullpen, though he would have been second-guessed all the way back to Philly if the ‘pen didn’t come through.

“The guys in the bullpen need to pitch,” he said. “It's early in the season. They need that experience. To see them come through, like Hollands two days in a row, that's all part of it. The guys are going to pitch. I've already seen improvement.

“They all chipped in and did a good job with matchups.”

Sandberg managed as if this was a must-win and for him it probably was, though he wouldn’t admit it. These are the Cubs, after all, the team with which he enjoyed a Hall of Fame playing career, the team he dreamed of managing until he had to go to Philadelphia to find managerial upward mobility. Sandberg was part of a Hall of Fame foursome, joining Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins in throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.

“Well, it was Opening Day and that’s a big deal out here,” Sandberg said. “It’s a big deal at Wrigley Field today. It’s good to take the first game and set the tone for the series. We’ll get after it again tomorrow.”

By going deep into his bullpen, Sandberg could have manpower issues in the coming days. The Phils are scheduled to play Saturday, Sunday and Monday before their next off day. However, none of the relievers who worked Saturday were extended much. Diekman threw 12 pitches, De Fratus 13, Bastardo 18, Hollands 10 and Manship 2.

Sandberg heard a few boos from the chilly crowd when he brought Manship in to face the final batter of the game. Sandberg just wanted Manship to get some work before cobwebs developed on his body. Brad Lincoln still has not appeared in a game. Sandberg said Lincoln was healthy. The right-hander was acquired from Toronto in the offseason and was a shoo-in to make the team because he is out of minor-league options.

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

NEW YORK — Alec Asher’s two-seamer was nearly perfect against the Mets on Saturday night — even if the pitching line was attached to his name was decidedly less so.

The rookie exited after five innings with four unearned runs attached to his name — two Phillies’ throwing errors on playable ground balls will do that — but lowered his ERA to 1.66 in a 10-8 victory that was far, far closer than it needed to be.

Lost in the shuffle of the Phillies bullpen’s attempt at self-immolation was just how effective Asher’s newly-developed two-seam fastball was in the early innings against the Mets’ full lineup. The relatively slow pitch — it was sitting around 90 MPH Saturday — generated six popouts during his perfect first trip through the batting order.

“Being able to throw a pitch that’s not straight works wonders,” Asher said. “Last year, I didn’t really have success throwing the four-seam, so just adding that little bit of movement misses barrels, [generates] mishits and gave me a lot of ground balls and weak contact, which is all I can ask for.”

Opponents are batting just .182 off Asher’s two-seamer in his four starts this year, according to data from Fangraphs.com, a complete 180 from his disastrous September call-up in 2015.

In his first major league starts, Asher struggled to establish a mound presence with a four-seamer that nearly touched 95 mph. Opponents batted .250 and got seven extra-base hits off the four seamer as Asher finished 2015 with an ugly 9.31 ERA.

The Phillies challenged Asher to generative more movement on the pitch and he returned in Spring Training with an entirely new repertoire.

So far, the effort has paid off.

“It’s outstanding. It’s been a real good pitch for him and his changeup,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Asher’s two-seamer. “He didn’t have either pitch last year, and for him to come up with it over the course of the winter and throw those pitches so effectively is huge.”

Asher relied on the changeup to escape the fifth inning — the only high-stress situation he faced all evening.

With four runs already in, a fifth runner poised on third base and a Citi Field crowd beside itself in hopes of a miracle comeback, Asher got pinch-hitter James Loney to top a low changeup out of the zone down the first base line that Tommy Joseph stopped with a dive.

“[I wanted] just to slow the game down and take it pitch by pitch,” Asher said.

Even if Saturday wound up being perhaps a bit more frantic than he would have liked to be, Asher has developed a formula for future success as he prepares for his final start of the season next Friday — also against the Mets — and 2017.

“Just establishing the fastball, commanding both sides of the plate and changing speeds,” he said.

His two-run single in the first inning on Saturday night — his first two career RBIs and, ultimately, the winning margin — was a bonus.

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Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Catcher Jorge Alfaro is making his second straight start after Saturday's 10-8 win.

Alfaro, the Phillies' top catching prospect, has gone 0 for 11 with a walk in his three career starts, all coming in the last two weeks since he was called up. Alfaro was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade last July and is 1 for 13 with a walk in five games. 

The 23-year-old will catch Jake Thompson in a game that means a lot more to the Mets (1:10/CSN).

Giving Alfaro playing time allows Phillies fans the chance to get a glimpse of the future. Roman Quinn has received plentiful playing time after was called up in the mid-September and Alfaro, like Quinn, is trying to leave an impression on the Phillies' brass before spring training.

Quinn is not in the lineup on Sunday as Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche man the corner outfield spots. Freddy Galvis moved up to second in the lineup after staying in the bottom half of the lineup in recent games.

Ryan Howard will bat fifth, playing likely his final game at Citi Field with the Phillies. While he has batted just .203 in 52 career games at Citi Field, he alos has 11 home runs there after smashing 12 homers at Shea Stadium, the Mets' previous stadium.

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Robert Gsellman and the Mets.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. Aaron Altherr, RF
8. Jorge Alfaro, C
9. Jake Thompson, P

For more on today's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes

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