Cesar Hernandez stakes his claim to second base job, wants to be Phillie for life

Cesar Hernandez stakes his claim to second base job, wants to be Phillie for life

One of the lasting impressions from Phillies spring training was that the organization is in pretty good shape at second base.

Scott Kingery was the star of the first two weeks of Grapefruit League play. He made eye-popping plays in the field and hit .286 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .619 slugging percentage in 25 plate appearances. Before sending Kingery over to the minor-league side, manager Pete Mackanin said, "It looks like he's on a fast track to the major leagues." Kingery is off to a great start at Double A Reading with three doubles, four homers and 12 RBIs in his first 32 at-bats.

After Kingery left, Jesmuel Valentin stepped up during the final two weeks of camp. He hit .366 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .512 slugging percentage in 45 plate appearances and was the last cut from the 25-man roster. Valentin opened the season at Triple A Lehigh Valley with 11 hits, five RBIs and a .412 on-base percentage in his first 10 games.

Kingery turns 23 later this month. Valentin turns 23 in May. The general consensus is that Kingery is the Phillies' second baseman of the future, but Valentin will have something to say about that.

And so will a young man named Cesar Hernandez.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the Phillies' current second baseman is still quite young; he will turn 27 on May 23. And given his age and rate of improvement -- he's one of the most improved players in baseball since last June -- he just might be the Phillies' second baseman not only of the present but of the future, as well.

For Hernandez, there is no "might" about it.

"Me," he said the other day, jabbing himself in the chest when asked who the Phillies' second baseman of the future is.

"I want to be a Phillie for life."

***

It almost seems as if Hernandez has been a Phillie for life. He signed with the club in the summer of 2006, the same day the team signed another teenage infielder from Venezuela -- Freddy Galvis. Hernandez and Galvis are now in their third season as the Phillies' full-time double-play combination, but their relationship goes back a lot farther than that.

They first started playing against each other in national tournaments in Venezuela -- Hernandez is from the state of Carabobo, Galvis from Falcon -- when they were 12 and hosted each other in their family homes over the course of four summers for a week each time.

Any pillow fights?

"No," Hernandez said with a laugh. "We were too tired from being at the field, playing and practicing all day."

As kids, both players were shortstops. Hernandez recalled running into Galvis at a Phillies' tryout camp, but did not know his friend had signed with the Phillies until the day after he put his own name on a contract. Hernandez received a $49,000 bonus to sign with the Phillies. Galvis got $90,000. In 2017, Hernandez will make $2.55 million and Galvis $4.35 million.

Hernandez described his relationship with Galvis as "brotherly." That benefits them on the field.

"We can get a message across in a few words or just with our body language or with a look," Hernandez said. "It’s a very close relationship.

"It's incredible how things turned out to be. We met as kids and now we're playing together. It's incredible."

***

There was a time last season when Hernandez and Galvis did not play together.

Hernandez was hitting .249 with a .239 on-base percentage and driving Mackanin crazy with boneheaded base-running plays, wild swings and an inability to get on base when he was benched on June 21. Hernandez sat for two games and would have sat for more had he not been needed when Tommy Joseph needed a day. Hernandez got back in the lineup had four hits and a walk and was a different player the rest of the season.

After the benching until season's end, Hernandez hit .327 (13th-best in the majors over that span) with a .421 on-base percentage (fifth-best).

"Tough love," Mackanin said. "The benching was sort of the last piece of the puzzle. Enough was enough. He should be better. It was a proverbial slap in the face. But he took off from there. Hate me now, love me later."

Hernandez has admitted the benching shook him and got him to focus on the player the Phillies want him to be -- a line drive hitter who works counts and gets on base.

Hernandez has continued his ascension this season. He has been the Phillies' best player, hitting .346 with three doubles, a triple, three homers, a .393 on-base percentage and a majors-high 13 runs scored through Sunday.

Over the winter, Hernandez got in the weight room and added 15 pounds of muscle to his 5-10 frame. He is now 180 pounds and strong. He is hitting the ball harder. He has twice led off games this season with homers and hit a decisive two-run shot to break a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning and give the Phillies a 4-2 win in Washington on Saturday afternoon.

After that game, Mackanin commented that Hernandez had "turned into a really good major league player."

Those words would never have come out of Mackanin's mouth when he benched Hernandez last June.

When told of Mackanin's comment, Hernandez smiled.

"It makes me very happy to hear that," he said with the help of Diego Ettedgui, the Phillies' Spanish language translator. "That's what it's all about. You want to see your work pay off. The sacrifices that I've made are taking me places. If the results are showing that makes me happy. It is what I've worked for."

And there's no question Hernandez has worked. It shows not only in his body, but in the time he puts in with hitting coach Matt Stairs. Hernandez is a dedicated student.

"He's a very sound hitter," Stairs said. "He's the most underrated guy on the team right now. If he has a bad at-bat he comes and asks questions. He wants to learn.

"He does all his work in the cage. But he keeps it simple and that's what a good fastball hitter should do. From what I've seen, he's just become a more focused player.

"He's a tremendous player."

***

Focus. Work ethic. Confidence.

Whatever the reason for Hernandez' improvement, one has to wonder what role internal competition has played in it. Kingery and Valentin both had good seasons and began to gain buzz last year. They shared a clubhouse with Hernandez in spring training this year and Hernandez witnessed their abilities up close. He knows they are not far away. He knows some folks believe Kingery is the team's future at second base and he could become a trade chip. Heck, according to multiple sources, the Phillies received inquiries about Hernandez this past offseason and didn't exactly respond by saying he was an untouchable. It was more like the team put a high price tag on him because it sees what everyone else sees: A good young player who is getting better.

Hernandez was asked if Kingery and Valentin have given him a healthy push.

"Not really," he said. "That doesn’t motivate me. I live day by day and focus on my own stuff.

"I want to get better and help my team get better. I don't pay attention to what the minor leaguers are doing. I know there is talent there, but I have to focus on myself."

However you dissect it -- whether Hernandez is the present and future at second or whether he's cashed in for value on the trade market -- the Phillies are in pretty good shape at second base.

"We're fortunate to have guys like Kingery and Valentin, but at the same time we like the guy we have here a lot," Mackanin said. "I feel like you can win with this guy. It's a nice spot to be in."

Nick Pivetta continues build towards strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

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Nick Pivetta continues build towards strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

ATLANTA -- The Phillies and Atlanta Braves are both rebuilding teams that have looked to acquire as much pitching as possible over the last few seasons.

The Phillies added Nick Pivetta in the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to Washington two years ago. The Braves picked up Luiz Gohara from Seattle back in January.

If both pitchers continue to develop, there's a chance they could face each other in a National League division race someday. 

On Sunday, they squared off in a battle of teams playing out the string, but the intensity of the matchup was good. That can happen in the penultimate weekend of the season. After all, impressions can be made right up until the final pitch of the season. Players are always auditioning, especially rookies hoping to win spots next season.

Pivetta, 24, made a very nice showing. He out-pitched Gohara in helping the Phillies salvage one game of the three-game series against the Braves with a 2-0 win (see observations).

Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr keyed a just-enough Phillies' offense with a solo homer and an RBI double and the bullpen triumvirate of Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris combined for three scoreless innings to seal the shutout.

Pivetta pitched six shutout innings, walked one and struck out four. He gave up five hits. It's been an up-and-down season for the rookie right-hander. There's been a lot of on-the-job training and a few bruisings. He is 7-10 with a 6.26 ERA in 25 starts. He has allowed just two runs in 12 innings over his last two starts, so he's finishing the season on a high note.

"The key to his outing today was that he was throwing all his pitches for strikes," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His breaking ball and his changeup, he really did a good job with them, throwing them ahead in the count and behind in the count, so that was key.

"This is the place to learn. You can have a lot of success in the minor leagues but when you get up here it's a different animal. The best place to learn is at the big-league level and take your lumps and learn from them. Now, if you have too many guys like that you don’t win a lot of games, so you can afford to have one or maybe two guys in the rotation that are feeling their way through it, but not more than that."

Forced to the majors by injuries in the rotation early in the season, Pivetta has often talked about the learning experience his first year in the majors has been.

He was happy to talk about getting a victory on Sunday.

"It's been nice," he said. "I've settled down a little the last two starts. Today, I just tried to do the right things -- get ahead of hitters. And the guys played great defense behind me.

"Even when I had runners on base, I was able to attack the hitters the way I wanted and I didn't put too much pressure on myself."

That's not always easy for a rookie pitcher in a close game. Pivetta's ability to stay cool and pitch around base runners in the fifth and sixth innings was a sign of his improvement. He will have one more start before the season ends and is looking to build on two good ones and go into the offseason with a healthy dose of confidence. He will be a candidate for a spot in the rotation next spring.

Sunday's victory left the Phillies at 62-94. They need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses. That once seemed to be a certainty, but they have played well since the All-Star break, recording a 33-36 record since then. They were 29-58 before the break.

Young players such as Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins have come up from the minors and given the Phils a lift in recent weeks. The bullpen has also improved with Ramos, Morgan, Neris and Luis Garcia (before Saturday night) pitching well. Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning Sunday. He has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Neris is 18 for 18 in saves opportunities since June 28.

The only run that the Phils scored against Gohara came in the fifth when Franco smacked a first-pitch changeup into the left field seats for his 21st homer. The pitch was on the middle-half of the plate, Franco's happy zone.

Franco is hitting .308 with three homers and seven RBIs since J.P. Crawford came up and applied a little competitive heat.

Franco said that's coincidence, that he's focused only on what he needs to do to get better.

"I think when those young guys come up it always creates an energy spurt in everybody," Mackanin said. "For whatever reason, if Maikel is having a good September, I hope it carries through for five or six months next year. One month does not a good year make. Hopefully he'll have a better approach and he's going to be more successful."

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Phillies rookie Nick Pivetta outpitched Atlanta Braves rookie Luiz Gohara Sunday afternoon as the Phils salvaged the final game of a three-game series with a 2-0 win at steamy SunTrust Park.
 
Maikel Franco smacked his 21st homer and Aaron Altherr had an RBI double for the Phillies' two runs.
 
Pivetta (7-10) pitched six shutout innings and the bullpen did the rest.
 
The Phillies ended up with a 13-6 record against Atlanta this season, their best against any team.
 
• Pivetta has mostly struggled in 25 starts in his rookie season, but he's also had some very nice outings where his potential has really shined. This was one of them. His last start, in which he gave up two runs in six innings against the Dodgers, was a good one, too. So the right-hander seems to be finishing on a high note. He will have one more start before the end of the season. In a perfect world, Pivetta would have gotten more time at Triple A this season, but there was a need in the majors. Ultimately, he should benefit from his baptism by fire.
 
• Atlanta lefty Gohara was very good in his fourth big-league start. The 21-year-old from Brazil gave up just five hits, walked two and struck out nine. The only run he gave up came on Franco's homer.
 
• Pivetta did a good job pitching around trouble. He got two outs in the second inning after an error by Franco put a runner on second. He also pitched around sloppy infield play in the fifth. In the sixth, Pivetta knocked down a ball back to the box but was unable to start a double play. He stayed calm and got two outs to get out of the inning.
 
• The Phillies took a 1-0 lead on a solo homer by Franco in the top of the fifth. Franco turned on a first-pitch changeup from Gohara. The pitch was on the inside half of the plate — right in Franco's happy zone. Franco pulls off pitches away in the zone, but he kills mistakes inside. Franco will work on this flaw in winter ball this season (see story).
 
• Altherr doubled home an important insurance run for the Phillies in the eighth inning. Altherr has 61 RBIs on the season and 27 have come in the seventh inning or later.
 
• Good job by the Phillies' bullpen. Edubray Ramos and Adam Morgan pitched scoreless ball in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively. Morgan has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Hector Neris survived two hits in the ninth and picked up the save. He is perfect on is last 18 chances since June 28.

• The Phillies' first two hits of the game were singles to right field and both runners, Cesar Hernandez and Jorge Alfaro, were out trying to stretch at second base. Braves rightfielder Nick Markakis made two perfect throws. Hernandez needed to come out of the box quicker.
 
• The Phillies have a 35-40 record at home. They will play their final six games of the season at home beginning Monday night with the opener of a three-game series against the NL East champion Washington Nationals. Aaron Nola (12-10, 3.56) pitches against right-hander A.J. Cole (2-5, 4.43) on Monday night. Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14) opposes lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night. Mark Leiter Jr. (3-6, 4.69) and right-hander Tanner Roark (13-10, 4.41) close out the series Wednesday night. The Phillies need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses.