Bulked-up Cesar Hernandez looks to build on last season’s breakout

Bulked-up Cesar Hernandez looks to build on last season’s breakout

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Cesar Hernandez added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame over the winter, taking him to 180 pounds.

So does that mean he’ll be swinging for the fences this season?

“No,” the 26-year-old second baseman said in front of his locker on Friday. “Line drives and ground balls.”

Hernandez learned his lesson last season. The 5-foot-10 switch-hitter was hitting .248 with a .293 on-base percentage when he was benched on June 20.

Manager Pete Mackanin pulled him aside that day in Minneapolis and delivered a message.

“I told him this wasn’t a rest, that he was going to have to change his swing, eliminate the uppercut, or I was going to start playing Whitey (Andres Blanco) more,” Mackanin said.

Bench coach/infield guru Larry Bowa delivered a similar message, telling Hernandez, “You’ll be sitting next to me on the bench for the rest of the season if you don’t make changes.”

Hernandez responded quickly.

“I watched him in batting practice that day and he was hitting down on everything — line drives,” Bowa said.

As it turned out, Hernandez’s benching lasted only a couple of days. Tommy Joseph felt ill before the final game of the series in Minnesota and Mackanin needed Blanco to play first base. Mackanin had no choice but to play Hernandez and the response was immediate. Hernandez went 4 for 4 with a triple, a walk and three runs scored that day.

After the June 21 benching, Hernandez’s batting average for the remainder of the season was .327, 13th-best in the majors over that span. His on-base percentage was .421, fifth-best in the majors over that span.

Hernandez admitted that the benching lit a fire under him.

“I understood the message,” he said. “I knew I needed to improve. I needed to do things better. It’s what I focused on.”

Hernandez’s play after the benching earned him a nice pay raise — from $525,000 to $2.55 million as a first-time arbitration-eligible player — and solidified his standing as the club’s leadoff man.

But Hernandez is hardly a proven player.

There remains curiosity about whether his strong second half in 2016 was a one-time hot streak or the start of something big, consistent and long running. Hernandez needs to continue to prove that it was the latter because middle infield is fast becoming an area of depth in the Phillies organization. 

The club will have a prospect playing second base in Triple A (Jesmuel Valentin) and Double A (Scott Kingery) this season. And lest we forget, second base still could be a landing spot for Freddy Galvis if shortstop J.P. Crawford ascends to Philadelphia. Also, left fielder Howie Kendrick is a natural second baseman so he could be in the picture if the Phillies decided to capitalize on Hernandez’s trade value. Nothing seems imminent, but numerous baseball sources say the Phillies did put Hernandez in play this offseason -- at a very steep price.

Basically, it’s up to Hernandez to lock himself in as a fixture at the position and that can only be done by playing the way he did in the second half of 2016.

“I know I can be better,” he said. “If I’m consistent and I try to do things the right way, I can be very successful. That’s the plan.”

Hernandez ended last season at 165 pounds. He spent time in the weight room this winter, as evidenced by his new bulk. He hopes the added strength will allow him to send line drives into the gaps this season – he led the majors with 11 triples last season – and said the bulkier frame would not affect his speed. In fact, his big goal for the season is getting on base and stealing 30 bags. He had 17 steals last season but was caught 13 times. He wants to improve that percentage.

Mackanin is all for that.

“It will help just to get in scoring position more often,” he said. “Cesar is one of the fastest players in baseball. He just needs work on his jumps, reading pitchers’ moves. I think he’s capable of it. It will enhance his overall value as a player.”

For Rhys Hoskins, it all started with that first home run

For Rhys Hoskins, it all started with that first home run

SAN FRANCISCO — All Rhys Hoskins needed was to get the first one.
 
That's the way power hitters are.
 
They will tell you they don't think about hitting home runs.
 
But they do.
 
"As much as I want to say I wasn't trying to get the first one out of the way, I think it's probably pretty obvious that's what it was," Hoskins said after the Phillies beat the San Francisco Giants, 5-2, Sunday (see game story).
 
He was referring to his first 12 big-league at-bats during the Phillies' last homestand. He went hitless in those at-bats before reaching base on a single in his 13th at-bat and heading to his native California for seven games on his first big-league road trip.
 
Hoskins delivered. He went 8 for 25 with eight RBIs on the seven-game trip. He homered twice in the first game of the trip and three more times before it ended, including on Saturday and Sunday in the Phillies' only two wins of the trip.
 
"I feel like I'm getting into better counts and the results showed this week," the 24-year-old said.
 
Manager Pete Mackanin said he was never worried about Hoskins being over his head.
 
"You know how that goes," he said. "You can't jump to conclusions after 20 at-bats. You might say he's hitting .220 (actually .237), but we can tell from his at-bats he's a much better hitter than that."
 
Hoskins hit 38 homers at Double A Reading last season and 29 more at Triple A Lehigh Valley before coming up earlier this month. After 11 games — and five homers — he feels more like himself.
 
"I just wanted to settle in the box and feel more comfortable in the box and realize it really is the same game, 60 feet, six inches, they still have to throw the ball over the plate," he said. "I think that has a lot to do with it."
 
Hoskins had two hits in Sunday's win, including a home run. He played first base, his natural position. Jorge Alfaro played there Saturday night as manager Pete Mackanin held slumping Tommy Joseph out of the lineup two days in a row. Joseph is hitting just .185 against left-handed pitching this season and Mackanin kept him away from lefties Ty Blach and Madison Bumgarner.
 
With a doubleheader Tuesday against Miami, and two righties pitching for the Marlins, Mackanin is sure to use Joseph in at least one of those games.
 
But how about beyond that? Alfaro has produced at the plate over the last two days and the team officials want to continue to see him. He was already slated to get time behind the plate, but first base has also become a place for him to get occasional at-bats, as it is for Hoskins, as well.
 
How is this all going to shake out?
 
Mackanin said Hoskins "most likely" would continue to get most of his reps in left field, where he's been OK, despite a couple of bad reads, for a relative newcomer to the position.
 
Then Mackanin added: "Let me have the day off (Monday) to think about it. We'll see how we can make this all work."

IronPigs rally to help Phillies end West Coast trip with 2 straight wins

IronPigs rally to help Phillies end West Coast trip with 2 straight wins

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO — Ben Lively, his eyes wide before his eighth big-league start, looked around at his teammates moments before the game.
 
"Dude, this is a really familiar dugout," he told Rhys Hoskins.
 
Indeed. Six of the Phillies' nine starters Sunday afternoon at AT&T Park were recent teammates at Triple A Lehigh Valley. They recently graduated to the majors and on this day joined together in rallying for a 5-2 win over the San Francisco Giants as the Phils closed out a West Coast trip with two wins and five losses (see Instant Replay).
 
It was a very entertaining ball game for several reasons:
 
The Phillies came back from a run down in the eighth inning and scored three times on a succession of five straight singles against Giants reliever Hunter Strickland.
 
Closer Hector Neris pitched himself into a tight spot when he plunked Buster Posey with a first-pitch fastball to load the bases in the bottom of the eighth. Posey took exception with the pitch, said something to Neris and moaned about it to reporters after the game (see video).
 
And then there was the IronPigs. All of the recent additions from Triple A had a hand in the win. All five of the Phillies' runs were driven in by players recently promoted. In Saturday night's win, a cast of recent additions drove in 10 of the Phillies' 12 runs. So, newcomers drove in 15 of the Phillies' 17 runs the last two days.
 
"We were pretty talented down there and I think it's good for this organization to have that kind of burst of energy," Hoskins said. "Hopefully it carries over to the homestand."
 
The IronPigs' impact started with Lively, who was recalled before the start and delivered six innings of two-run ball — "just what we needed," manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
It continued with utility man Pedro Florimon starting in left field, throwing out a runner at the plate and driving in three runs, including the tie-breaking run in the eighth.
 
Jorge Alfaro started behind the plate and drove in the tying run with a base hit in the eighth after coming back from an 0-2 count.
 
In all, the Phillies had five straight one-out hits in that inning — by Hoskins, Maikel Franco, Alfaro, Nick Williams and Florimon. All but Franco was in Triple A until recently.
 
"It's awesome," Lively said. "Everyone is getting an opportunity. A lot of people are making the best of their opportunities. That fires me up more than anything."
 
Two others who had been at Lehigh Valley this season, Adam Morgan and Luis Garcia, chipped in with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
 
Hoskins gave the Phillies a little breathing room in the ninth inning when he bashed his fifth homer in his first 11 games in the majors. All of them came on this trip to his home state with a slew of friends and family in the seats.
 
"I think we could have come away with a couple more wins, obviously, but we're feeling pretty good going home, split the series after dropping the first two," Hoskins said.
 
The wins were the Phillies' only two in the state of California this season. They went 2-11 in the land of the Double-Double.
 
The game was not without some drama. With two outs and runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth, and the Phils clinging to a two-run lead, Mackanin summoned his closer, Neris, as the dangerous Posey — who had already singled and doubled — stepped in the box.
 
Neris' first pitch, a 95-mph fastball, hit Posey in the side. The usually mild-mannered Posey was angry and said something to Neris before cooler heads prevailed.
 
After the game, Posey was still angry.
 
"I'm pretty certain he hit me on purpose and it's just a shame because I wanted to compete in that at bat," Posey said. "I guess he didn’t feel he could get me out.
 
"It was a big spot. It would have been fun to hit."
 
Neris was incredulous when he heard what Posey said.
 
"Not a chance," he said when asked if he hit Posey on purpose. "I don't want to put the tying run on second base. I don't want to hit anybody in that situation."
 
Mackanin said there was no way Neris threw at Posey.
 
"If Hector hit him intentionally, I'm not real happy with Hector to put the tying run on second base and the go-ahead run on first," Mackanin said. "It doesn't make sense to me."