Cesar Hernandez helps Phillies start 2017 with a bang in opening day win over Reds

Cesar Hernandez helps Phillies start 2017 with a bang in opening day win over Reds

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CINCINNATI -- When Cesar Hernandez showed up in the Phillies' spring-training clubhouse seven weeks ago, he was noticeably bigger and stronger. A winter spent in the weight room had taken him from a spindly 165 pounds to a sturdy 180.

It didn't take long for Hernandez to show off his new strength. The Phillies' leadoff man hit the eighth pitch of his first at-bat of the new season into the right-field seats Monday afternoon. It was one of seven extra-base hits that the Phillies used in opening their 135th season with a 4-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park (see Instant Replay).

Hernandez, 26, entered the new season with just eight home runs in 1,187 career at-bats in the majors. He had just six in 547 at-bats last season and didn't hit his first until June 4.

So, of course, he became the first Phillie since Heinie Mueller in 1938 to lead off a season with a home run.

"I'm hitting the ball a little harder this year," Hernandez said. "Workouts."

Freddy Galvis, who had a career-high 20 homers last season, went deep an inning after Hernandez. Both homers came against Reds' starter Scott Feldman.

The two friends and middle infielders from Venezuela signed as teens on the same day in 2006. After hitting home runs on the same day in 2017, they shared a laugh in the clubhouse.

"I have to tell you," said Galvis, explaining the dugout reaction to Hernandez's homer, "nobody believed it."

Hernandez heard Galvis' comment and shot a look at his friend.

Galvis laughed.

"It was pretty good, man, pretty amazing," he said. "The guy worked hard in the offseason. He really worked hard, took it seriously every day. To see a start like that is pretty good."

Manager Pete Mackanin concurred.

"Cesar Hernandez set the tone," he said. "I tell you what, we don't need power from the corners. We've got our power from the middle infielders. Cesar and Freddy, the two littlest guys on the field. It was good to see."

Yes, it was a good way to start a game and a season.

A lot went right for the Phils in this one. Three of general manager Matt Klentak's wintertime additions had big days. Michael Saunders doubled home a run in the first inning. Howie Kendrick had two singles and a double. And Joaquin Benoit came out of the bullpen throwing smoke in the sixth inning. Pitching with a man on second and no outs after starter Jeremy Hellickson exited, Benoit got two strikeouts and a fly ball to get out of the inning and protect a 4-1 lead.

Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris both followed with a scoreless inning before Jeanmar Gomez gave his manager agita by giving up a single and a two-run run homer in the ninth before registering a wobbly save.

Gomez had 37 saves last season, but lost the closer's job with a poor September. Mackanin decided to give Gomez the first chance at the job this season, but he's clearly on a short leash.

"I'm concerned about it," Mackanin said of the closer situation. "I had two guys up in the ninth. [Gomez] is just not getting the ball down the way he did when he was successful. I want to make sure that he gets the opportunities, but at the same time I don't want to let games slip away."

Four of the Phillies' seven extra-base hits knocked home runs -- all of the runs, in fact. One of those extra-base hits was a triple by starting pitcher Hellickson in the top of the sixth inning. It knocked in Galvis, who had doubled.

Hellickson's hit was a slicing liner toward the line in right field and it got by a diving Scott Schebler and rolled to the wall. Hellickson seemed perfectly content to stop at second, but third base coach Juan Samuel waved him to third.

The 270-foot sprint left Hellickson winded. He gave up a double to open the bottom of the inning and Mackanin, clearly with more confidence in his bullpen, got the right-hander out of there after five-plus innings of one-run ball.

"I was catching my breath for about 30 minutes after I got back in here," Hellickson said in front of his locker after the game. "That's the last time I'll be doing that. I'm stopping at second no matter what."

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro returns as Phillies go for sweep of Dodgers

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Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro returns as Phillies go for sweep of Dodgers

After getting hit by a pitch on the hand on Tuesday night, catcher Jorge Alfaro is back in the lineup for the Phillies, who are aiming for a four-game sweep of the Dodgers.

On Wednesday, Alfaro was replaced by Andrew Knapp, who had one hit in three at-bats in a rare start.

Freddy Galvis, hitless in his last two games, is 4 for 7 with a homer and three RBIs against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda.

For the first time in the last several weeks, cleanup hitter Rhys Hoskins is not in the spotlight for the Phillies. Instead, the attention has been on Aaron Altherr, who will try to finish an impressive series in style. Altherr, who hits fifth again on Thursday, is 5 for 11 with three homers and nine RBIs in the first three games against Los Angeles.

Odubel Herrera, who batted third last night and went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, hits sixth. His season batting average from that spot in the order is .340. 

Here is today's lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Jorge Alfaro, C
8. JP Crawford, 3B
9. Mark Leiter, P

Here is the Dodgers lineup: 

1. Chris Taylor, CF
2. Justin Turner, 3B
3. Cody Bellinger, 1B
4. Yasiel Puig, RF
5. Curtis Granderson, LF
6. Chase Utley, 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal, C
8. Logan Forsythe, SS
9. Kenta Maeda, P

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

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Somewhere in the basement of Citizens Bank Park sits a stash of champagne, chilled and ready to go for a celebration in the visiting clubhouse. It's only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch their fifth straight National League West crown, but the Phillies would prefer it did not happen in their house.

The Phillies aren't saying that verbally.

They're saying it with their actions.

They've played some of their best and most exciting baseball of the season the last three nights in taking the first three games of a four-game series against the Dodgers. All three of the wins have been come-from-behind efforts. The Phillies set themselves up for a series sweep with a 7-5 win Wednesday night (see observations). The victory included two more big hits from Aaron Altherr and a game-ending catch by centerfielder Odubel Herrera that left you wondering how to say 'Wow!' in Spanish (see video).

Herrera burst into laughter when he was asked that question after the game.

His answer: "Wow!"

Altherr has delivered several Wow! moments in this series. There was his decisive grand slam against Clayton Kershaw in the opener, another home run in Tuesday night's win and four more RBIs on Wednesday night.

Altherr hit a game-tying, two-run home run in the seventh inning on a hanging breaking ball from Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling. Two batters later, Tommy Joseph went deep on another hanger from Stripling as the Phillies took a 5-4 lead.

The Phillies' bullpen has been excellent lately, but it struggled in this game and let leads of 2-1 and 5-4 get away.

But these Phillies aren't just playing out the string. They have young players trying to show they belong and that's creating problems for the 96-win Dodgers. After giving up the lead in the top of the eighth, the Phillies rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead for good. The rally featured a leadoff walk by Cesar Hernandez, a sacrifice bunt by Freddy Galvis, a Dodgers' error, an intentional walk to Rhys Hoskins to load the bases and a two-run line drive hit to right by Altherr to put the Phils ahead.

Altherr, activated less than two weeks ago after a month-long stay on the disabled list, has nine RBIs in the first three games of the series. For the season, he is hitting .281 with 19 homers and 60 RBIs in 97 games. His OPS is .890.

"I'm just seeing the ball really well now. I got my timing back," Altherr said. "It's good when those two things come together. I'm just a lot more relaxed at the plate. I'm driving the ball better.

"I think when I first came back I was probably trying to do too much. You know, just trying to make up for lost time. It wasn't working. I went back to relaxing at the plate and letting the ball come to me and putting a good swing on it."

Altherr's decisive two-run single with one out in the eighth came against right-hander Brandon Morrow. Lefty Luis Avilan started the inning and loaded the bases on an intentional walk to Hoskins one batter before Altherr came up.

"That's part of the game," Altherr said of the intentional walk. "But, obviously, you still want to prove them wrong in thinking I'm an easier out. I just wanted to do the best I could to hit the ball hard somewhere."

Jake Thompson pitched five innings, ran a high pitch count, but exited the game with a lead.

He enjoyed watching from the dugout as his teammates rallied for five runs in their final two at-bats to make it three straight against the Dodgers.

"I think it gives us a huge boost knowing who we're doing it against," Thompson said. "They didn't get that record by a fluke. That team is really, really good. I think it shows how far this team has come this year."

The Phillies are moving in the right direction. At least their record is. They were 29 games under .500 before the All-Star break. Wednesday night's win left them at 32-33 after the break and that means something to a rebuilding team that has put a premium on improvement.

"To win these three games is huge for our confidence," Altherr said. "We know we're a good team. We have a lot of talent on this team. Wins like these help us believe in ourselves even more and help us to believe we can do this in the years to come. We're definitely excited about the future."

The Phillies' three wins in this series have come with Kershaw, Yu Darvish and All-Star lefty Alex Wood on the mound for the Dodgers. Those are three pretty good pitchers. The Phils will face righty Kenta Maeda in the series finale Thursday afternoon. A sweep would be a nice accomplishment. It would ensure that the Dodgers would not pop champagne corks in Philadelphia. And it would also give the Phillies a .500 record after the All-Star break, a little sign of progress as the team's fifth straight losing season winds down.