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: Dodgers lose injured Clayton Kershaw, beat Braves in 10 innings

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AP images

Best of MLB: Dodgers lose injured Clayton Kershaw, beat Braves in 10 innings

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw left after two innings with a back injury, but the Los Angeles Dodgers overcame a blown save by Kenley Jansen to beat the Atlanta Braves 5-4 on Sunday on Logan Forsythe's bases-loaded single in the 10th.

Kershaw, unbeaten in 15 consecutive starts, left after 21 pitches because of right low back tightness.

Jansen entered with a 3-1 lead and got the final out of the eighth, but gave up a three-run homer to Matt Adams in the ninth, tying the game at 4-all.

Forsythe singled up the middle after Cody Bellinger was intentionally walked by Jim Johnson (6-2) to load the bases.

Brandon Morrow (3-0) got the win after retiring the side in the top of the 10th.

Austin Barnes hit a three-run homer in the fourth for the Dodgers (see full recap).

Britton gets AL consecutive saves record as Orioles beat Astros
BALTIMORE -- Zach Britton set an American League record by converting his 55th consecutive save opportunity, blanking the Houston Astros in the ninth inning the seal the Baltimore Orioles' 9-7 victory on Sunday.

Britton struck out the first two batters and issued a walk before pinch-hitter George Springer bounced into a force play to end it.

Britton broke the AL mark held by Tom Gordon, who notched 54 straight saves with Boston from 1998-99. Britton started his run on Oct. 1, 2015, added 47 in a row last season and is 6 for 6 this year.

The major league record of 84 is held by Eric Gagne of the Dodgers from 2002-04. Saves became an official statistic in 1969.

Britton earned his fifth save on April 14 and endured two months on the disabled list with a strained left forearm before returning on July 5 (see full recap).

Nationals beat D-backs but lose Strasburg to injury
PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip (see full recap).

Yankees win 1st series in 6 weeks, beat Mariners
SEATTLE -- The New York Yankees won a series for the first time in six weeks when Aroldis Chapman struck out Ben Gamel with a runner on to preserve a 6-4 victory over Seattle on Sunday, their third win in four games against the Mariners this weekend.

The Yankees had been 0-8-2 in series since sweeping Baltimore on June 9-11. New York had lost 13 straight games with a chance to win a series.

After Seattle overcame a 3-0 deficit with a four-run fourth inning against Caleb Smith, Brett Gardner hit a tying, bases-loaded single in the sixth and Clint Frazier followed with a two-run double off former Yankee James Pazos (2-3).

Didi Gregorius had his first career multihomer game with solo shots in the second and fourth innings for New York, both on 0-1 pitches from Yovani Gallardo. Gregorius has 14 home runs.

Gardner opened the game with his 17th home run.

A converted starter pitching on consecutive days for the first time in big league career, Chad Green (1-0) struck out three in 2 1/3 perfect innings. Dellin Betances and David Robertson each threw a hitless inning, and Chapman had another shaky finish for his 11th save (see full recap).

Nationals' GCL affiliate pitch no-hitter in both games of doubleheader
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Washington Nationals' rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate pitched seven-inning no-hitters in both ends of a doubleheader Sunday.

Facing the GCL Marlins at the teams' shared spring training home, right-handed prospect Joan Baez opened the first game with six innings, allowing a walk and striking out seven. Jose Jimenez walked one in the seventh to close a 4-0 victory.

Baez is among the organization's top pitching prospects. He improved to 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in four appearances (three starts) with the GCL Nationals.

In the second game, Jared Johnson walked one in four innings, and Gilberto Chu closed with three perfect innings in a 1-0 win. It was only the second pro start for Johnson, a 17th-round draft pick last month from Palm Beach State Junior College.

They were the first no-hitters in the GCL this season.

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

BOX SCORE

Though they still have the worst record in the majors by 3½ games, the 34-62 Phillies aren't playing like the worst team in baseball right now.

Not from an offensive standpoint, not from a starting pitching standpoint, not from a bullpen standpoint.

The Phils' offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers, their fourth win in five games and sixth in the last 10 (see Instant Replay).

Nick Williams homered again, Howie Kendrick had a very Howie Kendrick-like at-bat with the bases loaded, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the trio of Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Luis Garcia sealed the win.

The Phillies have scored at least five runs in seven straight games, which is something none of their recent division-winning teams did in a single season. It's their longest such streak since May 31-June 7, 2005.

Their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in six of the last eight games.

And the Phils' bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

A lot of things are clicking right now for a team that probably can't play worse than it did in the first half. The Phils' record remains hideous, but there are actually four teams with worse run differentials: the Reds, Blue Jays, Giants and Padres.

"My first year here as a coach was '09, and in no way am I comparing ourselves to that team, but it was reminiscent the way we've been swinging the bats of us coming back and coming from behind and catching up and beating other teams," Pete Mackanin said. "It reminds me to a certain degree."

For much of the season, Mackanin has walked into the Phillies' media room after a loss and said that his hitters aren't living up to their standard. For much of the season, the Phillies have made quick outs and life easy for the opposing pitcher. 

But with Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez back from the DL, with Odubel Herrera hitting .331 since June 1, with Maikel Franco walking as much as he's struck out the last 35 games, and with Williams' power and energy rubbing off on the rest of the team, many different Phillies are playing like they have something to prove.

"Everybody is playing for a job next year," Mackanin said. "Everybody is playing to be part of our future and I think the guys are competing among themselves. It's good to see. Everybody's more aggressive. They're into the games."

The energy added by Williams' arrival on June 30 has been impossible to ignore, though it's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. Is there added energy because he and so many other guys started hitting, or are they hitting because there's a more positive vibe in the clubhouse and dugout?

"I like to do whatever I can to start the momentum or get guys going," Williams said. "If I do something exciting, they're like, 'Oh, he's playing hard.' But everyone's been hitting and everyone's been just playing the game right and just doing all the little things and that's how we've been able to come out with some victories.

"In close spots with the hitting, we've been able to knock a lot of guys in. It's just that hitting's contagious. I always say when one guy does it, why can't the next? That's how I think of it."

The biggest spot in Sunday's game came with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. With the game tied, the Brewers switched pitchers and Kendrick quickly found himself down 0-2 before singling up the middle to score two runs.

Kendrick has missed 60 games this season and it's been frustrating for him because he's been so locked-in when he's played. After picking up two more hits Sunday, he's up to .353 with an .873 OPS. His numbers are rarely sexy because he averages about 10 home runs per season, but a versatile, perennial .290 hitter has value. It's why the Phillies' offseason acquisition of Kendrick made sense and it's why he figures to have some trade value even though Sunday was just his 36th game of the year.

"Not only is he a good hitter but he plays solid defense out there," Mackanin said. "He doesn't have the greatest range but it's not bad. He's average to maybe a tick above average. 

"I'm sure there's a lot of interest in a lot of our guys, (Pat) Neshek, [Kendrick], even (Joaquin) Benoit, (Daniel) Nava. We'll wait and see."

The non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and general manager Matt Klentak expects there to be some movement. The Phils' two best trade chips are Kendrick and Neshek and both had productive weekends. Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to lower his ERA to 1.12. He's allowed runs in just two of 43 appearances.

And Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, going 4 for 10 since returning Friday from a hamstring strain.

"If I were scouting for another organization I'd recommend him," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "I'd put an acquire (label) on him."

We'll soon see what that acquire label nets the Phillies. The return won't be huge, but trading Kendrick will allow the Phils to add another young player with upside and open a spot back up for Aaron Altherr, who could return from the DL as early as Wednesday.