'Different' Lee dominates in Phils' win over Fish

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'Different' Lee dominates in Phils' win over Fish

BOX SCORE

The slogan on the new T-shirts the Phillies were sporting around the clubhouse on Monday afternoon was perfect. Too perfect given the way Monday night’s 12-2 win over the Marlins unfolded at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).

On the front of the shirt was a big picture of Cliff Lee’s face, his hair sweaty and disheveled, sporting a few days of growth on his face with an intense look.

Beneath the picture read the phrase, “I’m Different.”

Yes, Lee’s teammates know him all too well.

Lately, Lee’s performances on the mound have been extraordinary, but Monday night’s was extraordinarily different. See, not only did Lee pitch eight innings for the third game in a row to go with a season-high 14 strikeouts to earn his 14th win of the season, but he also went 3 for 4 with four RBIs and the first triple of his career.

Afterwards, manager Ryne Sandberg said all Lee could talk about was his triple.

“Oh, yeah. He couldn't be more happy about his hitting,” Sandberg said. “We just wanted him to go out and concentrate on his pitching.”

Lee became the first Phillies pitcher to get three hits and four RBIs in a game since a right-hander named “Fidgety” Phil Collins did it in an 11-5 win over the Pirates on July 22, 1930. In that one, Fidgety Phil slugged two homers, which is the way Lee would have preferred to do it rather than hustling around the bases for a stand-up triple.

But that’s all in the game for Lee, who doesn’t play like the typical pitcher. He runs the bases hard, hustles down the line on sacrifice bunts and makes plays in the field, like the one in the second inning when Chase Utley scooped the ball out of his glove to Lee’s bare hand to narrowly rob Logan Morrison of an infield single.

Though he says he’d rather trot around the bases and back to the dugout, Lee isn’t bashful about being a real baseball player as opposed to just a pitcher.

He’s different that way.

“When you’re on the bases it usually means you did something productive,” Lee said. “You worked your way on base. Once you’re there you have to run the bases.

“I try to do everything I can to help the team win. I take it all serious.”

With a .179 batting average and six RBIs, Lee says he is leading the pitchers’ season-long hitting competition. Hardly a friendly competition, Lee is still looking for his first win despite hitting two homers with seven RBIs and a .200 batting average in 2011.

Regardless, Sandberg said he wanted Lee to concentrate on his pitching and there was room for hitting and pitching on Monday night.

In improving to 14-6 with a 2.95 ERA, Lee surpassed the 200-strikeout plateau for the third straight season, as well as the 200-innings marker for the sixth straight year. He also became the first Phillies pitcher to get 14 strikeouts without allowing a walk since Curt Schilling did it against the Yankees on Sept. 1, 1997.

More importantly, Lee gave the bullpen a break after an arduous weekend in Washington. Since the All-Star break, Phils pitchers not named Lee or Cole Hamels have a 7.58 ERA. That means a lot of work for the relievers.

But it’s essentially a night off when Lee takes the mound. He has pitched eight innings in his last three starts, as well as in five of his last seven outings. During that span, Lee has a 4-1 record with a 2.25 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 52 innings.

Lee says he doesn’t try to get strikeouts but sometimes they are a circumstance of the game. With a big lead thanks to a six-run third inning, Lee could keep his approach simple and be aggressive. Strikeouts come quickly when all a pitcher does is throw strikes.

“Just being ahead in the count and pounding the strike zone -- I had a lot of two-strike counts,” Lee said. “I’m not really trying to strike guys out, to be honest with you. I’m just continuing to try and throw strikes and that’s a factor of when you throw strikes and they weren’t squaring it up.”

With a 70-80 record and two more starts likely for Lee, the Phillies' focus is on finishing the season strong. As Lee says, the idea is to play out the season until it’s over whether that means a trip to the playoffs or not.

“That’s part of winning. No matter what team you’re on and no matter what the circumstances are, you have to play hard and you can’t take a single play off or a single pitch off or anything,” Lee said. “It’s about being aggressive and being in the moment and being in tune with what’s going on. If everyone is doing that and everyone is prepared the right way, I like our chances. We have talent. It’s just a matter of executing and staying aggressive.”

The series continues on Tuesday night when Roy Halladay (3-4, 7.28) faces lefty Brian Flynn (0-1, 10.13). Halladay has faced the Marlins twice this year, including the May 5 outing in which he gave up nine runs on four hits and four walks. It was shortly after that game when Halladay learned he needed to have surgery on his right shoulder.

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come, or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 134th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors, and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26, and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see the Phils paying a player $200 million, $300 million, $400 million?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35, and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years, to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate, and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017, “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him.

And the looming shadow of the "man" in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).