Brock Stassi has a storybook ending to spring training

Brock Stassi has a storybook ending to spring training

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- There was no holding back Brock Stassi this spring and when he achieved his goal, there was no holding back the tears.

"I can finally say I'm a big-leaguer," the 27-year-old first baseman/outfielder said moments after learning he'd earned one of the final two spots on the Phillies' opening day roster late Thursday afternoon.

"It's a dream come true. I really don't have words to describe it right now."

Words were not needed. The tears in Stassi's blue eyes said it all.

An against-all-odds professional baseball journey that started when he received a $1,000 signing bonus as a 33rd-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2011 will take him to Cincinnati and the Phillies' season opener on Monday.

Daniel Nava, another first baseman/outfielder, will also be there. Nava and Stassi were chosen for reserve roles with the club while 22-year-old prospect Jesmuel Valentin, the third candidate for one of the final two spots on the bench, was sent to Triple-A so he could play every day and further his development.

The Phillies cleared room on their 40-man roster by designating outfielder Tyler Goeddel for assignment.

Nava, a 34-year-old who has played in the majors with Boston, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Kansas City, came to camp on a minor-league contract and earned his way onto the club by hitting .362 (17 for 47) with a .944 OPS.

As happy as Nava was to make the club, he couldn't help but get caught up in Stassi's elation. Nava has walked a few miles in Stassi's spikes. He was an undrafted player and began his pro career in an independent league before signing with Boston in 2008.

"It's awesome," Nava said. "I've been in his position. Also, we have unique stories. Neither one of us were big prospects or big signs so when he started sharing his story I was happy for him that he was doing so well, and to make the team -- it's special. It's special, your first one. He earned it. Nothing was given to him. Everyone was pulling for him and now we're all pumped for him."

A couple of years ago, Stassi thought his baseball dream was dying. He feared he might get released in spring training 2015. But he made the Double-A roster that spring, revamped his swing and had a huge season that earned him Eastern League MVP honors. He was invited to big-league camp last spring and spent all of 2016 at Triple A. He was invited back to big-league camp this spring with the mindset of winning a job.

And he did it with his lefty bat and good glove work at first base and in the outfield.

Stassi started hitting early in camp and never stopped. For the spring, he batted .333 (19 for 57) with six homers, 17 RBIs and a 1.099 OPS.
 
Stassi got the news in a meeting with manager Pete Mackanin after Thursday's 14-1 loss to the Yankees.
 
"What number do you want?" Mackanin asked Stassi, who wore non-roster number 78 in camp.
 
Stassi was speechless.
 
"I didn't really know what to expect," he said of the meeting. "I was pretty nervous. When Pete asked what number I wanted -- it was pretty special."
 
After getting the news, Stassi tried to call his folks. No answer.
 
"They’re working," he said with a laugh.
 
But they will be in Cincinnati on Monday.

And a lot of people who pulled for him along the way will be there in spirit, as well.

"My scout, Joey Davis -- he drafted me in the 33rd round -- he saw something in me," Stassi said. "I'm so thankful."

Stassi's dad, Jim, is a physical education teacher in the Sacramento area. A former catcher, Jim Stassi made it to Triple-A with the Giants before becoming a successful high school coach in Yuba City, California, where he coached his three sons. Max, also a catcher, has played in the majors with Houston each of the last four seasons.

Even Mackanin got a little caught up in Stassi's story.

"I got a little choked up, to be honest with you," Mackanin said. "I've sent a lot of guys to the big leagues as a Triple-A manager. I had my share of sending guys down and releasing them, which is the worst part about my job. But over the years, I have sent a lot of guys up and it's always fun. 

"This was special to me. And I know it was to (player development director) Joe Jordan because Brock earned every bit of it. He's just a good-looking player. He gives you good at-bats. He's a good defender. He plays the game the right way."

Stassi's journey to the majors was difficult. Staying in the majors is not easy, either, especially for a rookie reserve who must learn to stay sharp when the at-bats are not plentiful. 

Stassi realizes that.

"I'm going to celebrate tonight, but it's not done," he said. "I don't just want to get here, I want to stay here. I accomplished one of my goals. I'm just looking forward to the next one."

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 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."

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

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The return on the Phillies' $13.5 million investment in Clay Buchholz was about as poor as it gets, but if it keeps leading to starts like Sunday's out of rotation replacement Zach Eflin, nobody inside or outside the organization will complain.

Eflin was in cruise control Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, limiting the Braves to just one run on three hits over seven innings and keeping the Phillies in the game before their eighth-inning fireworks in their 5-2 win (see Instant Replay).

Eflin struck out only three batters but generated a lot of weak contact. There were six groundouts to first base and just as many soft pop-ups to the shallow outfield.

Whereas Buchholz's two outings with the Phillies resulted in 10 runs and 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings, Eflin's first two starts have yielded just three runs and nine baserunners in 12 innings.

"Just the other day we were talking about depth in the pitching rotation at Triple A and here is good evidence of what we have down there," a jovial Pete Mackanin said. "Eflin comes out of Triple A and pitches outstanding. That's a bonus for us.

"When he's got that bowling-ball sinker working, it's hard for a hitter not to worry about the inside part of the plate, which opens up the outer half."

Eflin worked quickly and kept the game moving. Eight of his 21 outs required two pitches or less.

"I felt really good today, I did a good job of getting ahead in the count and getting early contact, trusting my sinker and I stuck with that the whole game," Eflin said.

The lone run Eflin allowed was a seventh-inning solo home run by Matt Kemp, who broke his bat on a jam-job to left field his previous time up. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half with three one-out singles, then exploded in the eighth inning with back-to-back-to-back homers by Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera. 

Just like that, the Phillies completed their first series sweep of the young season, sending the Braves packing with a 6-12 record. The Phils, back to .500 at 9-9, are off Monday before beginning a three-game series vs. Miami.

The Phillies were also 9-9 last season but got there in a much different way, winning a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. The offense has been better this April and the starting pitching is coming around.

Last year when the Phillies were 9-9, they had been outscored by 23 runs. This year, they've outscored their opponents by seven.

"It does feel different," Mackanin said. "Who would have thought Cesar would hit four home runs the whole year? But there are a lot of good things going on. We'll just go from here and see what happens. Again, the big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up."

Some good things are happening at Triple A, where three pitchers have already earned call-ups and another, Nick Pivetta, is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA through three starts. He's struck out 24 while walking two. 

It's another illustration of how many of their recent trades the Phillies have won. 

Eflin was acquired in December 2014 for one season of a 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins. 

Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals two summers ago when the Phillies had no leverage with Jonathan Papelbon but found a meaningful return anyway. 

And Joely Rodriguez, who picked up his first major-league win Sunday, was the piece the Phillies got back from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo.

"Joely Rodriguez has really stepped up and done a great job for us," Mackanin said. "We originally considered him more of a long guy, but he is starting to prove to me that he can get big outs late in the game against certain hitters and he got a couple of big outs (today)."