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."

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

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 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."