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.”

Phillies conclude miserable homestand with new low as Zach Eflin demoted to Triple A

Phillies conclude miserable homestand with new low as Zach Eflin demoted to Triple A

BOX SCORE

For a moment Sunday afternoon, Citizens Bank Park sprung to life as the Phillies strung together five hits in a four-run second inning.

But four home runs off starter Zach Eflin sent the Phillies to another defeat and Eflin to Lehigh Valley.

Eflin was optioned to Triple A following the Phillies' 8-4 loss to the Reds, in which he allowed seven runs on nine hits in just five innings of work (see Instant Replay)

"His first two-three outings were really good," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was keeping the ball down, but his last three, including today, he's elevating his sinker and once you elevate that sinker, it doesn't have the effect that you'd like to have."

The Phillies have now lost nine consecutive series for the first time since 1997. The loss was their 22nd in 28 games and handed the Reds their first series win at CBP since August 2006.  

Eflin got off to a rocky start Sunday with three first-inning singles, allowing one run. He escaped further damage but then proceeded to give up a home run in each of his final four innings. The final home run — Adam Duvall's second on the day — came on an 0-2 pitch and extended Cincinnati's lead to 7-4. All of the Reds' hits off Eflin came on fastballs as their potent lineup feasted on his pitches high in the zone.

Two weeks ago, Eflin's ERA stood at 2.87 as he kept opponents in the ballpark with his hard sinker. However, starting with a May 17 outing in Texas, Eflin has allowed 22 runs in his last 15 innings. He's given up seven homers in his last two starts and at least nine hits in five consecutive outings as his ERA ballooned to 6.13. With Sunday's results, the Phillies were left little choice but to option the 23-year-old righty while he deals with a rough patch.

"There are some things I need to work on," Eflin said. "I need to do a better job of pitching backward, especially in fastball counts. There's a lot of things I need to work on, but at the end of the day, I'm not worried about it. I'm going to go down there, work on everything I need to work on and get back as soon as possible."

The Phillies will reinstate Howie Kendrick (oblique) off the 10-day disabled list Monday, Mackanin said, in a corresponding move after the veteran IF/OF completed a four-game rehab stint (see story)

Kendrick could help boost an offense that is scuffling. After a four-run second inning highlighted by Andrew Knapp's 434-foot three-run home run, the Phillies' bats fell silent. They strung together five more hits. However, three double plays and a few untimely strikeouts killed any further rallies.

The Phillies left a potential run stranded on third base in the fifth inning as Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr struck out against starter Scott Feldman, who waded into and out of trouble in five innings of work. Herrera went 0 for 4 with that strikeout, continuing to slump. His average has fallen to .217.

With Kendrick returning, Mackanin indicated he would give Herrera some days off soon to help him relax amid mounting pressure to hit.

"He's scuffling. A couple guys scuffling," Mackanin said. "I'll probably move him down in the lineup. I can't keep him in the two-hole. But he has to fight his way out. 

"We'll see when Kendrick gets here. We're going to have another outfielder. I'm going to mix and match and try to get everybody in there. Kendrick, I'm going to bring along slowly because I want to make sure he's healthy.

"In other words, I don't have a set outfield. I'm going to mix those guys up."

On the infield, Maikel Franco continued his slide Sunday, going 1 for 4 with a strikeout and a double play. The slugger is hitting .213 this month, just as he did in April, but his power is down with just two home runs. Kendrick, who only played left field in April, played third base while at Triple A, so he could potentially spell Franco as well.

"He hit a ball hard today but he's not giving us consistent at-bats," Mackanin said. "He's searching both physically and mentally. It's not easy for him. I can tell he's down on himself. He's not happy about what's going on."

The Phillies came into this week struggling and were unable to rebound against the Rockies and Reds, losing five of seven. They averaged just 2.42 runs during the homestand.

However, the bigger problem comes in the rotation. The team gave up 5.71 runs per game in their last seven despite a 23 2/3 inning scoreless streak from the bullpen. The rotation's struggles continue to plague the team as they carry the worst record in baseball into Miami for a three-game set starting Monday.

"I certainly expected more out of our starters," Mackanin said. "We've had some issues with [Aaron] Nola's arm and Clay Buchholz going down. Although [Jerad] Eickhoff is going to end up having a good year in my opinion. He's been a little bit hot and cold.

"And Eflin, I counted on him to have a big year this year. I think if he gets himself straightened out down in Triple A, I think he's going to come back strong. But certainly, I can't sit here and say I'm happy with [his performance]."

Instant Replay: Reds 8, Phillies 4

Instant Replay: Reds 8, Phillies 4

BOX SCORE

Zach Eflin allowed a career-high four home runs and the Phillies were outslugged by the Cincinnati Reds in an 8-4 defeat Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phils have now lost nine consecutive series for the first time since 1997. The loss was their 22nd in 28 games. The Reds, who took two of three, picked up their first series win at CBP since August 2006.

Eflin was roughed up for the third consecutive start. The Reds tagged him for seven runs in just five innings. After three hits led to a run in the first inning, he gave up home runs in each of his last four frames. Following the game, Eflin was optioned to Triple A Lehigh Valley.

Jeanmar Gomez allowed a solo home run in relief. 

Andrew Knapp gave the Phillies an early lead with a three-run homer during a four-run second inning. However, three double plays stifled the Phillies' offense, which was held scoreless after the second inning. 

Scott Feldman improved to 4-4 with the win for the Reds. The Phils dropped to 17-31 while the Reds improved to 24-25. 

Starting pitching report
Eflin stumbled through five innings, allowing nine hits. He had held opponents to just four homers in first six starts but has now has let up seven in his last two appearances. Over his past three starts, Eflin's been tagged for 22 runs in 15 innings. He's given up at least nine hits in all five May starts. 

A poor sign for Eflin: Only two of his outs came on the ground. The Reds were all over his fastball and scored in each of his five innings. His ERA has gone from 2.81 to 6.13 since May 17.

Feldman labored through a 32-pitch second inning in which he gave up four runs. He settled down afterward with a pair of double plays to get through five innings. The veteran righty struck out the last two batters he faced with a man on third and one out.

Bullpen report
Luis Garcia threw two shutout innings, striking out one. Jeanmar Gomez gave up rookie Patrick Kivlehan's second home run of the day in the ninth inning, snapping the Phillies' bullpen's scoreless streak at 23 2/3 innings. Gomez allowed three hits and the one run in two innings.

Blake Wood, Wandy Peralta, Drew Storen and Raisel Iglesias each threw shutout innings in relief of Feldman.

At the plate
Manager Pete Mackanin wanted the Phillies to string together 4-5 hits and they did so in the second inning. Tommy Joseph and Michael Saunders led off with back-to-back singles before Knapp drove them in with his 434-foot blast. Knapp laid off two high fastballs after falling behind 0-2 and drilled a curveball into the Phillies' bullpen.

Freddy Galvis followed with a double. Even Eflin aided the cause with his first career RBI on a run-scoring single. 

The top two in the order — Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera — went 0 for 8. Everyone else in the lineup had at least one hit. Saunders and Aaron Altherr each had two hits while Ty Kelly had a pinch-hit double.

Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and Kivlehan combined for five home runs with Duvall and Kivlehan notching multi-hit games. Jose Peraza and Zack Cozart extended their hitting streaks to 13 and 11 games, respectively, in the first inning.

Up next
The Phillies head on the road and begin a three-game set with the Miami Marlins, whom they beat twice in April at Citizens Bank Park.

Monday, 7:10 p.m. — Jeremy Hellickson (5-2, 4.28) vs. Edinson Volquez (0-7, 4.82)

Tuesday, 7:10 p.m.— Vince Velasquez (2-4, 5.55) vs. Justin Nicolino (0-1, 5.40)

Wednesday, 1:10 p.m. — Aaron Nola (2-2, 4.34) vs. Dan Straily (3.83)