Countdown to Clearwater: Matt Stairs has a challenge — and a plan

Countdown to Clearwater: Matt Stairs has a challenge — and a plan

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.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors with 610 runs scored in 2016.

They were also last in OPS (.685).

They ranked second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) and drew the second fewest walks (424) in the majors.

Congratulations on your new gig, Matt Stairs. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

The Phillies made just one personnel change on their coaching staff after last season with Stairs, one of the heroes of the team’s run to the 2008 World Series title, replacing Steve Henderson as hitting coach.

Stairs, who turns 49 later this month, requires no elaborate orientation for his new job. He is a devoted student of hitting and for years has tutored young, amateur players on an individual basis. He’s also extremely familiar with most of the Phillies' hitters after spending the last three seasons as part of the team’s TV broadcast crew.

“I already have a book on every hitter’s strengths and weaknesses,” Stairs said. “I love hitting and teaching it. I’m really excited to get going.”

Stairs has actually been in Clearwater for a couple of weeks working with early arrivers such as Odubel Herrera and Roman Quinn. With each passing day, more and more hitters will arrive, leading up to the first full-squad workout on Feb. 17.

So what can the Phillies' hitters expect from Stairs? What will he stress in camp as he tries to build a better hitter and improve the team’s on-base skills?

“Don’t give away at-bats,” Stairs said. “I’m going to communicate that to them over and over until I almost become a pain in the butt: Don’t give away at-bats. Know your strengths as a hitter. Go up there with a game plan. Be ready to hit.

“If every player gave away five at-bats per week that’s 120 at-bats per season. Now, think about it if you can cut that number in half.”

In order to become a tougher out and not give away at-bats, Stairs will stress to his hitters to hit off the fastball early in the count. But he doesn’t want his hitters simply hacking at any fastball. He wants them to look for the pitch in a certain location — their strength area. If they get a fastball in that area, drive it. If they don’t, lay off and let the pitcher run up his pitch count and move closer to his exit.

“Be aggressive early in the count, but make sure the pitch is in your strength location,” Stairs said. “But you don’t have to swing at the first pitch, you don’t have to expand the zone early in the count if it’s not in the location you’re looking.

“If you’re sitting fastball early in the count and you swing at a slider low and away, that’s giving away an at-bat. Work the count to a hitter’s count. Next thing you know you’re improving your selectivity.

“We are driving through the minors to be more selective, cut back on the easy outs. If guys stay on that program, you will notice the on-base percentage climb.”

Phillies hitters saw an average of just 3.81 pitchers per at-bat in 2016, which ranked 27th in the majors. General manager Matt Klentak wants to build a team that “controls the strike zone” — both in the batter’s box and on the pitcher’s mound. The concept — characterized by swinging at strikes and throwing them — is being stressed from the low minors on up and Stairs will do his part at the big-league level. It will start with dugout communication and the reminding of a hitter to have a game plan before each at-bat during a game.

“I want them to realize if you play the first game of a series and give no at-bats away you’ll be in the bullpen early in the first game and you have a good chance to win the series,” Stairs said. “Be patient, get in 'pen early, especially in the first game, win the series. That said, I don’t want them taking a fastball down the middle.”

Stairs will stress a basic hitting approach during batting practice each day.

“We want these guys to think gap to gap, less body and more hands in their swings,” Stairs said. “Drive the ball through the wall in the gap. BP will really have a purpose. It’s not going to be one of those things where you hack and see how far you can hit it. If you hit a home run in BP we want it to be to right-center or left-center, at least until the last round, then you can let it rip. But bad habits carry over into a game. You don’t get into bad habits when you stay gap to gap.”

Maikel Franco is a gifted offensive talent who needs to be reminded to use the middle of the field more. When he gets pull-happy, pitchers can have their way with him with pitches away or off the plate. If he can learn to drive pitches away to the opposite field or lay off them when they are off the plate, he will eventually see more pitches middle-in and ultimately become more dangerous.

Stairs is eager to work with all the Phillies' hitters, in particular Franco, who reminds him of a former Oakland A’s teammate.

“He reminds me of Miguel Tejada,” Stairs said of the former American League MVP. “When Tejada first came up, he swung at everything. He was a free-swinger like Franco. Then he calmed down. He figured it out and became a true professional hitter. He’d spit on the stuff low and away and wait for the pitcher to make a mistake. Franco has good hands and a good swing. He’ll be an MVP candidate once he figures it out.

“If you work counts, the pitcher will make a mistake. I’ll try to make all of our hitters realize they don’t have to be in a hurry to hit and you do that through a lot of communication, film study and work.”

Stairs is ready to put in the work.

And the progress of his pupils is key to this team’s improvement.

Next: Day 5 — A look at how the starting rotation will shape up

Best of MLB: Masahiro Tanaka throws shutout; Yankees top Red Sox, 3-0

Best of MLB: Masahiro Tanaka throws shutout; Yankees top Red Sox, 3-0

BOSTON -- Masahiro Tanaka pitched a three-hitter to outduel Chris Sale and earn his first shutout since 2014, and the New York Yankees beat Boston 3-0 on Thursday night for their fifth straight victory over the rival Red Sox.

Tanaka (3-1) struck out three and threw only 97 pitches for his fifth career complete game and his 10th win in 11 decisions dating to last season. Aaron Hicks had two hits and scored twice, and Matt Holliday had two hits and two RBIs.

Tanaka retired the last 14 batters he faced and only allowed one runner to reach second base.

Sale (1-2) allowed three runs -- two earned -- and eight hits in eight innings, striking out 10 and walking none. He joined Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Jon Lester as Red Sox pitchers with 10 or more strikeouts in four straight starts (see full recap).

Urias makes solid 2017 debut as Dodgers beat Giants in 10
SAN FRANCISCO -- Run-scoring singles by Andrew Toles and Justin Turner in the 10th inning led the Dodgers to a 5-1 victory Thursday against the San Francisco Giants after Los Angeles pitcher Julio Urias made a solid start in his 2017 debut.

The Dodgers, who had lost to the Giants in 10 innings the night before, loaded the bases with no outs in the 10th on two walks and an infield hit. Toles followed with a tie-breaking single, Kike Hernandez had a sacrifice fly and Turner extended his hitting streak to 13 games with an RBI single. Chris Taylor drove in the fifth run with a bases-loaded walk.

Kenley Jansen (1-0) got the win, striking out the side in the ninth inning, as the Dodgers managed a split of the four-game series. The loser was Cory Gearrin (0-1), who walked the only batter he faced leading off the 10th inning.

Urias allowed one run in 5 2-3 innings after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City before the game (see full recap).

Harper homers in 11-run 7th, Turner, Nats rout Rockies 16-5
DENVER -- Bryce Harper hit a three-run homer as part of an 11-run seventh inning, Trea Turner had another big game at Coors Field and the Washington Nationals routed the Colorado Rockies 16-5 on Thursday.

Turner proved to be a pitcher's nightmare throughout the four-game series. He hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and added a double and two singles in the finale -- in all, he had nine extra-base hits, scored 10 runs and had 11 RBIs.

Washington finished 9-1 on its road trip, taking three of the last four at Colorado. What's more, the Nationals scored 11 or more runs in three straight games for the first time since July 1986 at Atlanta, when the team was the Montreal Expos.

Leading 4-2, the Nationals broke the game open in the seventh by sending 15 batters to the plate and pounding out eight hits, including Harper's eighth homer.

Gio Gonzalez (3-0) pitched in the seventh and also drove in two runs.

Rockies rookie Antonio Senzatela (3-1) took the loss (see full recap).

Lindor's 2-run blast in 7th leads Indians past Astros 4-3
CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor hit a long two-run homer in the seventh inning to lift the Cleveland Indians over the Houston Astros 4-3 Thursday night.

Lindor's 456-foot homer off Chris Devenski (1-1) landed in the visitors bullpen about 50 feet beyond the center field wall.

Corey Kluber (3-1) struck out 10 and allowed three runs in seven innings as the defending AL champs took two of three from the AL West leaders.

Edwin Encarnacion and Abraham Almonte also homered for Cleveland, which has won seven of nine.

Marwin Gonzalez homered, and Evan Gattis and Alex Bregman each had an RBI single for the Astros, who have the second-best record in the AL (see full recap).

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

BOX SCORE

With Kendrick Lamar's "Duckworth" blaring through the clubhouse speakers, a spirited Phillies team fresh off a six-game winning streak packed its bags for a daunting road trip.

The Phils, 11-9 after Thursday's 3-2 win over the Marlins (see Instant Replay), begin a three-game series at Dodger Stadium Friday night before heading to Wrigley Field for four games with the reigning champion Cubs. 

After that, they play six of their next eight games against the Nationals, who have the best record in baseball and the top three RBI leaders in the majors so far this season.

On the one hand, you want to face these teams when you're hot. On the other hand, we saw what happened late last May when the Phils took a 25-19 record into a nine-game run against the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals that effectively ended their season.

"What a great homestand to leave on," manager Pete Mackanin said. "That was fun. We're coming together as a team."

The Phillies are winning in many different ways right now. They're hitting homers, getting solid starting pitching and effective bullpen work. Three of these six straight wins have been in one-run games.

On Thursday, Jeremy Hellickson handled the free-swinging Marlins yet again. He had a 2.01 ERA against them in six starts last season and carried that success into this start, allowing one run on seven hits with no walks over six innings.

Hellickson has walked just three Marlins in 46 1/3 innings the last two seasons.

"Hellickson, this guy, sometimes I watch him pitch and when he's doing it right, it looks like he's just playing catch with the catcher," Mackanin said.

It's interesting that Hellickson has had this much success early without striking anyone out.

"I've never struck that many guys out," said Hellickson, who did admit he's a little surprised his numbers have been so stellar without the benefit of a few more K's. He's struck out just 11 of the 115 batters he's faced in 2017.

But Hellickson's 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.80 WHIP through five starts. His pace is slow, but his outs are quick.

The key spot for Hellickson came in the fourth when Martin Prado and Christian Yelich began the inning with singles. Runners were on the corners with nobody out and Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto coming up.

But Hellickson got his only strikeout of the afternoon in that spot, whiffing Stanton, who continues to have relatively quiet games against the Phillies. Ozuna popped out and Realmuto lined out to end the threat.

Hellickson retired all three of them on changeups, his go-to pitch that has legitimately become one of the best pitches in baseball.

Hellickson entered Thursday's start with the fourth-lowest opponents' batting average (.155) on his changeup of any major-league starter since last season. He got seven more outs with that pitch against the Marlins.

You don't often see — in fact, you rarely ever see — a right-handed pitcher turn to his changeup against righties, especially with men in scoring position. Typically, a right-handed changeup is used as an out-pitch against lefties because it fades down and away from them. 

But Hellickson's is so good that he's OK throwing it to any hitter in any count.

"Bob McClure and I had that conversation in the early part of last season," Mackanin said. "I didn't understand it. I told Mac, 'I'm not crazy about right-on-right changeups.' He said, 'Pete, it's such a good changeup that he gets people out with it.' I said OK, I'll defer to you on this one. 

"And as the season went along, he was right. If you've got that good of an arm action on your changeup that deceives the hitters and the movement, you can get anybody out with it."

Offense for the Phillies wasn't plentiful but it was enough. They scored a run on Dee Gordon's first-inning error, a second after Freddy Galvis' one-out triple in the third, and the deciding run came on Brock Stassi's RBI triple in the sixth.

That was all they needed because of another strong effort by Hellickson and the relievers behind him.

Hector Neris picked up his third save with a 1-2-3, seven-pitch ninth inning. Joaquin Benoit had a perfect eighth inning with two strikeouts. 

But sidewinding Pat Neshek picked up the biggest outs with men on base in the seventh inning of a one-run game. The inning ended with a weak swing by Stanton, who punched out with two men on.

It came just a couple weeks after Neshek made Yoenis Cespedes look silly after numerous other Phillies pitchers were victimized by the Cuban slugger.

"For the most part," Neshek said when asked if his deceptive delivery plays better against big, right-handed power hitters. "There's some guys like Adrian Beltre that just destroyed me. But yeah, I like facing big righty guys. That's kind of what I've done all my career."

"It's very important," Mackanin said of Neshek's deceptiveness. "The biggest thing about that is hitters don't see that very often. They don't see it all the time. If they saw it all the time, it would be less imposing. But when you have to change your eyesight down to knee- or ankle-level, it's very disruptive. The deception is what gets you out.

"That was huge. You know what Stanton's capable of doing and Neshek just did a fine job on him. For whatever reason, we seem to make a lot of quality pitches against that guy."

Indeed they do. Now they hope to make some quality pitches against Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy over the next two weeks. 

If they don't, all the positivity of this six-game winning streak will be but a distant memory by mid-May.

"I'm obviously pleased with the performance of the players," Mackanin said. "We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year."