Big changes could be brewing as Phils return to work

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Big changes could be brewing as Phils return to work

The Phillies resume their frustrating -- fans might call it infuriating -- season Friday night in Atlanta with A.J. Burnett taking on the Braves’ Ervin Santana.

After going 42-53 before the All-Star break, the Phillies will need something approaching a miracle to get into the hunt in the National League East.

While the idea of a pennant race seems far-fetched, the next 2½ months figure to be fascinating as the team churns a roster that is in need of a good churning.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as the Phils come back from the All-Star break.

Trade talk
The non-waiver trade deadline is just two weeks away and the Phillies will be busy. Actually, they’ve already been busy. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his lieutenants are on the phone daily with rival clubs, laying groundwork for deals. The Phillies’ professional scouting staff is on the road, in big-league and minor-league parks, looking at players who might come back in deals.

The Phillies are not buyers. They need a serious retooling. Management is looking to bring young talent into the system. To do this, the club is willing to deal any player. Sure, some players such as Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins (both have full no-trade rights and Rollins is just 35 at-bats from having his $11 million contract guaranteed for 2015) and Cole Hamels are less likely to move than others. But make an offer and the Phillies will talk. Just be prepared to give up three or four mega talents for Hamels.

The Phils have plenty of veteran talent that could help contending clubs. Burnett and Cliff Lee are both available. The Orioles have scouted a number of Burnett’s recent starts, and the Yankees and Blue Jays both had scouts at Lee’s minor-league rehab start in Clearwater on Tuesday night. Lee returns to the rotation Monday night after two months on the disabled list with an elbow strain and the scouts will be out in force. Lee will have just two starts before the trade deadline. That might not be enough time for a suitor to feel confident about trading for him, not when he’s guaranteed $37.5 million after this season. So Lee might go in an August waiver deal. Either way, his and Burnett’s availability are big second-half items.

Looking for a reliever? Jonathan Papelbon has already made it clear he wants out and there are enough teams looking for top relief help (both Los Angeles clubs, the Tigers, the Orioles, the Giants) that he should get his wish, especially because the Phillies have long been willing to eat part of his salary to move him. Teams are always looking for lefty relievers, so Antonio Bastardo could be on the move.

There is a dearth of top right-handed power bats on the market. That will help the Phillies if they decide to move Marlon Byrd. The Mariners have interest in Byrd, but he has a no-trade clause to that club and may require his $8 million option for 2016 to be guaranteed before he says yes to a deal.

The Phils are looking to remake their outfield. Ben Revere and Domonic Brown are both available for deals.

So what are the Phils looking for in return? Offense, Amaro has said, but he’s not likely to say no to pitching talent either as the Phils don’t have much that’s close in the minors.

Whither Ryan Howard?
Once the most feared hitter in the Phils’ lineup, Howard is hitting just .220 with a dreadful .681 OPS. Sure, he has 15 homers and 56 RBIs, but his inconsistency is a major problem. He is hitting .141 with just three extra-base hits (two doubles and a late-inning home run in a game the Phils led by six runs) in his last 21 games.

There are signs that the organization is running out of patience with Howard. Amaro suggested that prospect Maikel Franco could come up from Triple A in the coming weeks and get some time at first base. Manager Ryne Sandberg has said that he could start tinkering with different lineups once people “get healthy.” That is a reference to first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf, who is back playing at Triple A after rehabbing a broken wrist.

Howard is signed for two more seasons and guaranteed $60 million over that time. That makes him untradeable even though the Phillies would eat a significant amount of the number to move him.

In the offseason, there was a lot of talk about platooning Howard or sitting him if he did not produce. That wasn’t going to happen, however, without his getting a good, long look as an everyday guy. The look has been long now. Will Sandberg start cutting into Howard’s at-bats? And if he does, is it just a precursor to management considering a buyout? Stay tuned.

New faces
The final two months could be a time to take a peek at Franco at third and first. He is hitting just .230 at Lehigh Valley but might benefit from some lineup protection in Philadelphia.

Outfielder Grady Sizemore is already here. The Phils will spend the final months of the season evaluating whether he could be a contributor, possibly in a platoon, next season.

David Buchanan will be back, sooner rather than later if the Phils trade a starting pitcher, and Jason Marquis could come along, as well (see story).

And don’t rule out the Phils' bringing the Mystery Man, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, up for a look before the season is over. His problematic shoulder is holding up better since he moved to the bullpen. His fastball has been sitting at 93-94 mph at Double A Reading.

Attendance drop
The Phils are on pace to draw 2.5 million fans this season. That will break a string of seven straight seasons of drawing at least 3 million. Heck, they drew more than 3.5 million in four of those seasons.

Last year, the Phils drew 3.01 million so they are headed for a half-million drop, which, with an average ticket price of $37, equals a huge loss of revenue.

The last time the Phillies had a significant drop in attendance was 2005 when it fell by almost 600,000. General manager Ed Wade was fired after that season. Amaro’s job is already on the line because of the team’s performance. Attendance is another factor to watch as it relates to the GM’s job security.

Games to play
The Phillies have 67 games left. There is time. But here’s why it’s so hard to believe they can play their way into contention. They are 11 games under .500 and 10 back in the division race. They have been above .500 just five days since last year’s All-Star break. Teams can’t even think of the playoffs until they get to .500 and this team has shown itself to be completely incapable of doing that.

Still, they march on, looking over their shoulders as changes are surely coming.

“There are plenty of games to make up that ground,” a hopeful Utley said. “But we have to play better baseball. There is no doubt about that.”

Best of MLB: Padres score 4 off Papelbon in 9th, take series from Nationals

Best of MLB: Padres score 4 off Papelbon in 9th, take series from Nationals

WASHINGTON -- The San Diego Padres' three-city road trip didn't begin well. Earning their first series victory against the Washington Nationals since 2011 is helping to turn it around.

Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf hit back-to-back homers off Shawn Kelley in the eighth inning and the Padres added four runs off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth to beat the Nationals 10-6 on Sunday.

"We've been on the road for a little bit, and it's definitely good to come here against a team like this and get two wins out of it," said Schimpf, whose team suffered a four-game sweep in St. Louis before winning two of three in Washington.

Ryan Buchter (2-0) pitched a scoreless eighth to earn the victory.

With the game tied at 6, Wil Myers drew a one-out walk off Papelbon and moved to second on a wild pitch before Yangervis Solarte's RBI single. The Padres added two more singles to load the bases, setting up Alexei Ramirez's three-run double (see full recap).

Matz earns 1st win since May as Mets beat Marlins
MIAMI -- Helped by a couple of small victories against Giancarlo Stanton, Steven Matz earned a big win for the New York Mets.

Matz pitched six innings Sunday for his first win since May, twice escaping trouble by getting Stanton to ground out with a runner in scoring position, and the Mets took the rubber game of their series against Miami, 3-0.

"It was good to go out there and put up zeroes and get a win," Matz said.

The Mets won two of three games in the series and returned home trailing second-place Miami by half a game in the NL East.

"This was crunch time for us," manager Terry Collins said. "We couldn't lose any more ground. This was a good series for us to win."

Matz (8-6) allowed four hits, walked two and struck out six. Pitching despite a bone spur in his elbow, he had been 0-5 in his past nine starts with an ERA of 4.73 (see full recap).

Reimold's HR helps Orioles beat Indians 5-3 for 3-game sweep
BALTIMORE -- This is how good things are going for the Orioles at home this season: After blowing a late-inning lead, Baltimore launched the game-winning uprising with a third strike.

Pinch-hitter Nolan Reimold hit a decisive two-out homer in the ninth inning after Pedro Alvarez reached on a strikeout, and the Orioles beat the Cleveland Indians 5-3 Sunday for a three-game sweep.

Cody Allen (2-4) began the ninth by striking out Alvarez, but the ball eluded catcher Roberto Perez. After fielding the bouncing ball off the backstop, Perez hit Alvarez in the helmet with the throw for an error.

"As long as I have been playing baseball the rule is you run down the baseline," Alvarez said. "I saw the ball get away from him and I just ran down to first base."

A sacrifice bunt and a strikeout followed before Reimold lined a 2-0 pitch into the left-field seats (see full recap).

DeShields homers as Rangers top Royals
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Delino DeShields is known for his speed, stealing 101 bases in 2012 in the minors, not for his power.

DeShields homered in the seventh inning to break a tie and the Texas Rangers defeated the Kansas City Royals 2-1 on Sunday.

DeShields, who was recalled Thursday from Triple-A Round Rock, walked and doubled before leading off the seventh with his third home run. DeShields hit a 2-1 pitch from Luke Hochevar out to left.

"It so happened that today I was the guy that got us the go-ahead run," DeShields said. "I was just trying to hit the ball hard. I wasn't looking for anything specific. I wanted to get on base. Before I had gotten on base in every at-bat.

"With the game tied and if I get myself in scoring position, there's a good chance for me to touch home plate. I got into it pretty good and got it over the fence, but the main focus was just putting the barrel on the ball and try to get on base."

The loss dropped the Royals to 48-49, the first time the World Series champions have been below .500 since May 15 when they were 18-19. The Royals have lost 13 of 19 games in July (see full recap).

Andres Blanco breaks finger as beat-up Phillies drop series to Pirates

Andres Blanco breaks finger as beat-up Phillies drop series to Pirates

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- Andres Blanco isn’t the type of player who will generate a lot of headlines over the course of a season.
 
But the 32-year-old utility infielder is a favorite of manager Pete Mackanin for his ability to fill in capably at all four infield positions. The nine-year veteran is also popular in the clubhouse for his pleasant nature and unselfishness.
     
The Phillies will be without Blanco for 15 days and maybe longer after he suffered a fractured left index finger in the fifth inning of Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates when spiked on the hand by Gregory Polanco on a play at third base (see Instant Replay).
 
Blanco will be placed on the 15-day disabled list Monday night before the Phillies open a three-game series against the Marlins at Miami.
 
“It’s a tough loss,” Mackanin said. “He is a valuable part of the team. He’s a guy with experience and he’s dependable. Hopefully, we’ll get him back a quicker than we hope. I don’t like the idea of being without him for long.”
 
Blanco will be examined by Phillies’ team doctors Monday in Philadelphia.
 
He needed four stitches to close a cut on the finger. There is a chance he will need surgery both because of the fracture and the risk of possible infection caused by the dirt from Polanco’s spikes getting into Blanco’s bloodstream through the cut.
 
Blanco was making his second straight start at third base in place of Maikel Franco, who was out with a sore left wrist after being hit by a pitch Friday from Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole.
 
Franco took over at third for Blanco, who is hitting .271 with four homers in 75 games this season. Blanco hit a solo home run with two outs in the first inning off rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon to open the scoring.
 
The Phillies lack a true backup infielder beyond Blanco, which makes Taylor Featherstom the most logical candidate to be called up from Lehigh Valley as he is already on the 40-man roster.
 
Acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for cash considerations just before the start of spring training, the 26-year-old has spent the entire season in the International League and is hitting .264 with 12 home runs in 87 games.
 
The Phillies did get some good injury news as Franco showed no ill effects from his wrist injury and went 1 for 2.
 
Also, catcher Cameron Rupp passed Major League Baseball’s concussion protocol for a second straight day after being hit in the left ear flap of his batting helmet on Saturday by a pitch from Pirates rookie right-hander Tyler Glasnow. Carlos Ruiz started behind the plate as Mackanin wanted to give Rupp an extra day off.
 
"If you get hit in the head, you probably want to take a little bit more precaution than if it was another part of your body,” Rupp said.
 
The Phillies were not happy that Glasnow hit Rupp and starting pitcher Aaron Nola in Saturday’s game, especially after Franco got drilled the day before. However, Rupp said he did not think the 23-year-old was headhunting.
 
“I don't believe the kid did it on purpose,” Rupp said. “It happens. Balls get away from people.”
 
Outfielder Aaron Altherr is also expected to make his season debut Wednesday with the Phillies at Miami. He has been on the disabled list all season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left wrist, an injury he suffered during spring training.
 
Altherr hit .241 with five home runs in 39 late-season games last year after making his major league debut in 2014 and going 0 for 5. He figures to be an offensive upgrade over left fielder Cody Asche and right fielder Peter Bourjos.
 
“Altherr got a taste of it here last year and did very well,” Mackanin said. “He can catch the ball, too, which is important to me. I’m looking forward to having him and seeing if he can build off last season. The lack of production from the corner outfielders has been a bane of ours all season and we could use some help.”

Instant Replay: Pirates 5, Phillies 4

Instant Replay: Pirates 5, Phillies 4

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH --- Pinch hitter Adam Frazier’s first career home run, a leadoff shot in the seventh inning off fellow rookie Edubray Ramos, lifted the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 5-4 victory over the Phillies on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park.

It was also the first home run allowed by Ramos (1-1) in 14 career relief appearances.

The Pirates tied it at 4-4 an inning earlier when Matt Joyce hit a two-run home run off starter Vince Velasquez.

The Phillies wound up losing two of three in the series after rookie right-hander Zach Eflin pitched a three-hit shutout on Friday night. They are 3-7 since the All-Star break to fall 10 games under .500 at 45-55.

Cesar Hernandez had three hits for the Phillies while Andres Blanco and Odubel Herrera hit solo home runs off Pirates rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon.

Pirates left fielder Starling Marte also had three hits. Neftali Feliz (4-0) pitched a scoreless seventh inning for the win and Mark Melancon worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 30th save.

Blanco suffered a fractured left index finger in the fifth inning when the veteran utility infielder was spiked on the hand by Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco in a play at third base. He is expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list Monday (see story).

Blanco was making his second straight start at third in place of Maikel Franco, who was out with a sore left wrist after being hit by a pitch Friday from Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole.

Franco took over at third for Blanco, who is hitting .271 with four homers in 75 games this season.

Meanwhile, catcher Cameron Rupp was not in the lineup after being hit in the left ear flap of his batting helmet on Saturday by a pitch from Pirates rookie right-hander Tyler Glasnow. Carlos Ruiz started behind the plate.

Rupp passed Major League Baseball’s concussion protocol both Saturday and Sunday and will likely play Monday night in the opener of a three-game series against the Marlins at Miami.

The game was delayed for one hour and 32 minutes in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Starting pitching report
Velasquez had his worst of his five starts since coming off the disabled list June 26, though he did not factor in the decision. He allowed four runs and seven hits in six innings while walking four and striking out five.

Velasquez threw 107 pitches, 64 for strikes.

In his first four outings after begin activated, he was 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA to raise his record to 8-2.

At the plate
Hernandez was moved to the leadoff spot of the batting order to replace slumping right fielder Peter Bourjos and responded by going 3 for 5 with a triple.

Herrera’s home run led off the sixth and was his 11th of the season, giving the Phillies a short-lived 4-2 lead. Herrera went 7 for 13 in the series after going 4 for 41 in his previous 11 games.

First baseman Ryan Howard went 2 for 3, lifting his batting average to .166, before being pinch hit for in the eighth inning.

Left fielder Cody Asche was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, the last coming to end the eighth inning with two runners on base and the Phillies trailing by a run.

Up next
The Phillies open a three-game series against the Marlins on Monday night at Miami.

Monday night --- RHP Jeremy Hellickson (7-7, 3.84) vs. RHP Jarred Cosart (0-1, 7.98)

Tuesday night --- RHP Jerad Eickhoff (6-11, 3.98) vs. RHP Tom Koehler (7-8, 4.42)

Wednesday afternoon --- RHP Zach Eflin (3-3, 3.40) vs. LHP Adam Conley (6-5, 3.58)