Cliff Lee rusty in return as Phillies lose to Giants

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Cliff Lee rusty in return as Phillies lose to Giants

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The scouts were lined up a dozen wide behind the backstop at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night. In case you didn’t hear, Cliff Lee returned to the Phillies’ rotation after two months on the disabled list.

Lee was the feature attraction because, if healthy, and if effective, he could zoom to the top of the list of pitchers that are available before next week’s non-waiver trade deadline.

The left-hander did not exactly drop jaws in his highly anticipated return performance. He went 5 2/3 innings against the San Francisco Giants and allowed 12 hits and six runs in a 7-4 loss (see Instant Replay).

Lee was clearly rusty. He lacked his usual pinpoint command.

“Yeah, a little bit,” the pitcher said after the game. “I wasn’t locating that well. I was behind in the count more than I’d like to be. It was good to be back, but I would have liked the results to be better.”

Lee had not pitched in a big-league game since he went down with an elbow strain on May 18. He made three minor-league rehab starts before the Phillies turned him loose Monday night.

“I would say he was rusty,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “It was evident in the first inning with him going 2-0 on the first couple of batters. When he threw strikes he wasn’t on the corner like he usually is and balls were over the plate.

“Looking at the swings, you usually don’t see balls getting squared up that often when he’s on the corners.

“The velocity was fine. That might improve a little bit along with the command with more outings underneath him.”

Lee’s fastball has been better. He threw nine fastballs in the first inning. Eight registered 90 mph on the stadium radar gun and one reached 91 mph. His fastball sat at about 89 mph the rest of his outing. Truth be told, Lee delivered more gas during his postgame interview than he did on the mound.

Most importantly, Lee said he felt healthy.

“I felt good physically,” he said. “I just wasn’t locating as well as I would have liked.

“But they earned it as well. They got 12 hits off me. You have to give them credit.”

Lee faced 28 batters and threw first-pitch strikes just 13 times. That’s not him.

Scouts from a number of contending teams, including the Blue Jays, Pirates, Royals, Mariners, Tigers, Orioles, Giants and Angels were on hand for Lee’s start. You can bet other teams were charting pitches from the television broadcast. (There’s more than one way to scout a player.)

“I didn’t know how many scouts were here and I didn’t care,” Lee said. “My goal is to give the team a chance to win and obviously I didn’t do that.”

Some scouts may have been in attendance to get a peek at some of the Phillies' available relievers. Very available lefty Antonio Bastardo pitched a scoreless seventh inning and struck out two batters. The Royals and Tigers were specifically on hand to check out Phillies relievers, a source said, and Bastardo’s appearance had the look of a showcase.

Jonathan Papelbon, available and wishing out loud for relocation, did not pitch. Closer-needy teams are watching him.

Papelbon was not needed because Lee gave up a 4-3 lead in the sixth inning and the Phillies, who had 14 singles and zero extra-base hits (see story), couldn’t get it back. The sixth inning started with a single by Michael Morse and a two-run homer by Adam Duvall. Lee allowed a two-out double to pinch-hitter Joaquin Arias and an RBI single to Hunter Pence later in the inning and was gone.

“It’s good to have the first one out of the way,” he said. “I’ll definitely have to make some adjustments before my next start.”

That will come Saturday night against Arizona at Citizens Bank Park. That will be Lee’s last start before the trade deadline, which arrives a week from Thursday at 4 p.m. Lee is scheduled to pitch that night in Washington.

Will he make that start or will he be with another team by then? Tough to say. Lee’s performance Monday night was not enticing. On top of that, it’s tough for scouts to get a complete read on his health in two starts. Taking on Lee comes with risk because he is owed $37.5 million after this season and will cost a team prospects. If Lee remains with the Phillies beyond the non-waiver trade deadline, he could still be moved in a waiver deal in August. That would give teams more time to gauge his health and effectiveness.

Lee, who turns 36 next month, has been traded twice in July in his career, so he is unfazed by the glare of this trade deadline.

“I couldn’t care less about the scouts in the stands or trade rumors or anything like that,” he said. “It’s not my job to make trades and acquire players. That’s their job upstairs. Our job as players is to go out and compete and try to win and it’s really that simple. I can’t get caught up in trades and speculation. I’m a Phillie and I want this team to win.”

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

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Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura quit school as a teenager so he could begin working a construction job to help his family make ends meet, laboring day after day in the hot sun of the Dominican Republic.

It was a chance tryout with the Kansas City Royals that changed the trajectory of his life.

Yordano wowed scouts with an electrifying fastball, the best they had seen in years, and a confident demeanor that bordered on brash and arrogant. And both of those traits served him well as he rocketed to the major leagues, helped the Royals win a long-awaited World Series championship in 2015, and became one of the most popular players in a city that embraced baseball one again.

Ventura, whose nickname "Ace" fit so perfectly, died Sunday in a car crash on a stretch of highway near the town of San Adrian in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

"Our team and our organization is hurting deeply," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective, and challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease to do what is right, and loving others. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"We loved Yordano," Moore said. "We loved his heart, we loved who he was as a teammate, a friend. He was somebody that challenged us all and made us better and I'm going to miss him."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a stretch of highway 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the nation's capital. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

He's the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was 24 when he was killed along with two other men in a boating accident near Miami Beach in late September.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"I was traveling to the airport this morning and I got a phone call wanting to know if I'd heard about Yordano, and I thought they meant Marte," Moore said. "My first thought was, `Were they together?'

"Then shortly afterwards, I got a call from Major League Baseball confirming this tragedy."

The Dominican Republic has the second-highest traffic-related death rate in the world -- officials there believe alcohol, speed and a blatant disregard for traffic laws is to blame. Oscar Taveras, Jose Oliva, Rufino Linares and Jose Uribe are among players who have died in crashes in the country.

It wasn't known whether Ventura had been drinking or speeding at the time of his accident.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican whom Ventura called his hero, posted pictures of Ventura and Marte on Twitter and said, "Guys, the only way we can pay tribute to you, is by reflecting on the adjustments we all have to make in this game called life."

Moore speaks frequently with Latin American players about dangers of returning home, including driving on the perilous roads.

"I'm more intentional about it to the point where it probably goes in one ear and out the other," Moore said, "but we're constantly discussing these things."

The Royals lowered flags at Kauffman Stadium to half-staff Sunday, and displayed Ventura's photograph on the large, crown-shaped scoreboard in centerfield of the empty ballpark. Fans were leaving flowers, hats and other mementos within hours of learning of his death.

Royals teammates learned the news in a text chain and took to Twitter to share their sorrow.

"I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Ventura will be buried Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the Royals are planning to attend.

Before his start in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, his close friend and countryman who had been killed days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura wrote "RIP O.T (hash)18" on his hat and also wrote messages on his glove, cleats and the mound before shutting out San Francisco for seven innings in a win.

"If he was still here, I would for sure be talking to him, and Oscar would be very happy for me," Ventura said afterward. "Oscar was a very humble guy and very likable, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Ventura signed a $23 million, five-year deal with the Royals shortly before he started on opening day in 2015. He then helped them bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Game 7 by returning to the World Series and beating the New York Mets in five games for their first crown since 1985.

The right-hander went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and his fiery demeanor was never more evident than when he hit Orioles star Manny Machado with a fastball to trigger a brawl. Ventura was suspended nine games for the pitch, though it was cut to eight on appeal.

In a surreal coincidence, the 33-year-old Marte played his final game in the big leagues for Arizona on Aug. 6, 2014. Ventura started that game for Kansas City.

"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Said players' union head Tony Clark: "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Moore said he spoke to Miami general manager Mike Hill early Sunday, in part because Moore admired the grace and heart in which the Marlins organization dealt with Fernandez's death.

It wasn't certain whether Fernandez was driving the boat when it crashed on Sept. 25. He had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.147, above Florida's legal limit of 0.08, according to autopsy reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

"That was one of the first things that came to mind when I began to figure out how we were going to process this," Moore said. "Mike was able to provide some insight. Just give me some comfort, really."

Ventura wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura was a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential to his rapid rise. He made his debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as Hosmer and Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League.

He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades. Then he helped to lead them back to the Fall Classic in 2015, this time completing the job on a crisp night in New York.

"He always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness," Moore said, his voice cracking. "He was a very compassionate human being, loved to compete, no doubt challenged us, but that made us better. Nobody could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates, how much he cared about the fans, and how much he loved to compete and to pitch."

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.