Countdown to Clearwater: Here’s looking at you, kids

Countdown to Clearwater: Here’s looking at you, kids

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

You never know who’s going to rise up from the edges and make a difference for a major league team.
 
Look at Tommy Joseph. A year ago at this time, his career was on the rocks. He’d been waived, passed over in the Rule 5 draft and assigned to minor-league spring training camp. Before you knew it, however, he was in the big leagues, driving in runs and muscling balls over the wall.
 
When the Phillies open camp next week, Joseph will have a locker in the big-league clubhouse and the regular job at first base will be his.
 
So who will be this year’s Tommy Joseph?
 
Who will be that unheralded guy that pops in from the margins and makes a contribution in the majors in 2017?
 
Could it be Andrew Pullin?
 
Pullin, 23, is one of about 20 young prospects who will get time in big-league camp before heading off to the minors this season. The list includes some of organization’s brightest and most talked-about prospects, including shortstop J.P. Crawford; catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp; outfielders Dylan Cozens, Roman Quinn and Nick Williams; first baseman Rhys Hoskins; second basemen Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin; and pitchers Victor Arano, Elniery Garcia, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively and Drew Anderson, among others.
 
The first few weeks of camp will be a time to watch Crawford, the organization’s top prospect, work counts and make the pivot on double plays. It will be a time to watch Alfaro and Cozens play dueling power bats in batting practice, a time to see Quinn show his electrifying speed on the bases, and a time to see if Arano might be in line for a quick jump to the Phillies’ bullpen.
 
We single out Pullin because he’s the guy that reminds us a little of Joseph in that he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December and 29 other teams passed on him. The Phillies retained the 23-year-old corner outfielder and thought enough of him to invite him to big-league camp for a look-see. Pullin is a left-handed hitter with a swing that reminds some of Jim Eisenreich. It would not be a complete reach to think he could help in Philadelphia at some point this season.
 
Pullin’s journey to Phillies big-league camp is kind of interesting. He hails from Centralia, Washington, about 90 minutes south of Seattle, and was headed to the University of Oregon before the Phillies selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Before the draft, Pullin had caught the eye of a number of Phillies scouts, including Pat Gillick, as they spent time watching another player from the Centralia area, pitcher Mitch Gueller. The Phils picked Gueller in the sandwich round, 54th overall. He has moved on from baseball and is now playing football at Idaho State. Meanwhile, Pullin presses on with his baseball career.
 
Drafted as a second baseman, Pullin moved to the outfield in 2015 and drove in 73 runs in the Florida State League. His career seemed to be moving on a good track when he abruptly announced that he was retiring from baseball just before the start of the 2016 season. Six weeks later, he reconsidered, returned to the Phillies’ system and his career got back on track as he hit .322 with 14 homers, 51 RBIs and a .885 OPS in stops at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading. He hit .346 with a .955 OPS in in 46 games after his promotion to Double A.
 
“I had some personal things I needed to take care of and the Phillies were very gracious and helpful,” Pullin said of his decision to step away from baseball temporarily. “Everything’s taken care of and I’m glad to be back. Everything’s great.”
 
That includes his right elbow.
 
Pullin injured the elbow making an awkward throw during the final week of last season while playing for Reading. The injury cost him a scheduled assignment to the prospect-filled Arizona Fall League and gave management reason to gamble and leave him off the 40-man roster in November, thus exposing him to the Rule 5 draft in December. The gamble paid off.
 
“My elbow is fine now,” Pullin said. “I’ve been throwing and it’s feeling good.”
 
Pullin recently took part in the Phillies prospect education seminar. During a weeklong stay in Philadelphia, he got to work with new hitting coach Matt Stairs in the batting cage.
 
Like Gillick before the 2012 draft, Stairs was taken by Pullin’s crisp and efficient swing.
 
“He’s got a very quiet approach, tremendous hands and a short, fluid swing,” Stairs said. “The scouting report is you can’t beat him with a fastball and I can see why. I’m excited to see him on a more regular basis in spring training.”
 
It’s unclear where Pullin will open the 2017 season. The Triple A outfield appears set — and prospect-studded — with Quinn, Williams and Cozens. Pullin might have to return to Double A to get regular at-bats, but if he produces like he did last season he will continue to get noticed and play himself onto the 40-man roster in November – and maybe sooner if he hits his way to Philadelphia this season.
 
“I feel like I can compete anywhere,” Pullin said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I can do and I’m just trying to repeat that. My goal is to improve with every game and keep moving up so next year I can hopefully make it on the 40-man roster.”

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

BOX SCORE

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."