Dodgers go boom, boom, boom to burst Phillies' bubble

Dodgers go boom, boom, boom to burst Phillies' bubble

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LOS ANGELES — For eight innings, it was a wonderful night for the Phillies.

Brock Stassi, the storybook kid, belted a three-run home run. Rookie Andrew Knapp had three hits, including his first big-league home run to give the Phils a three-run lead in the eighth inning, much to the delight of his family and friends whose cheers could be heard rising from deep within the sellout crowd of 53,110. Zach Eflin pitched superbly over seven-walk free innings and even the boys in the dugout had a little fun goofing on Tommy Joseph as he watched the game oblivious to the fact that he had a perfectly formed bubblegum sphere stuck to the top of his cap.

For the Phillies, there were plenty of reasons to be giddy.

And then the bubble burst, turning their happy little night into a crushing, oh-the-humanity, 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers (see Instant Replay).

"It's one of the worst losses I've ever been associated with, the way we lost," manager Pete Mackanin, looking shellshocked, said moments after it ended.

Trailing 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers tied the game in the blink of an eye when Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner hit consecutive solo home runs off closer-but-don't-call-him-closer Hector Neris.

Puig's homer was a laser into the left-field seats, capping an eight-pitch at-bat. Bellinger's was a shot off the right-field foul pole that electrified the huge crowd. Turner's was a pinch-hit shot to left.

"Those weren't windblown home runs," Mackanin said. "They were bombs. It's tough to take. I'm not real happy with the outcome."

Mackanin removed Neris after a one-out single by Austin Barnes. Lefty Joely Rodriguez came in and got an out, then allowed a two-out single to Corey Seager, bringing No. 3 hitter Adrian Gonzalez to the plate.

With the crowd roaring and the count 1-1, Gonzalez fouled off four straight pitches before hitting a bouncing ball to the left of third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco moved to the ball, but it hit off the end of his glove and bounced wildly as Barnes raced home from second with the winning run.

Gonzalez was awarded an RBI infield hit. But it could have been scored an error.

"I thought [Franco] should have caught it," Mackanin said. "I think he should have [made the play]."

Franco said he could not dive for the ball because it was bouncing so much.

"I was running hard for the ball, but it hit off the tip of my glove," Franco said. "I tried to go out there and do my best on that play. But, you know, I can't get that. I did everything I can on that play."

Really, the game was lost when Neris could not hold the lead. Once the ball started flying out of the park and the crowd started going wild, there was no holding back the Dodgers. They went boom, boom, boom and it was only a matter of time before the Phillies hit the canvas.

In both the macro and micro sense, the Phillies have a problem in the ninth inning.

In the macro, they have blown four saves in the ninth inning, two resulting in painful walk-off losses. The team ERA in the ninth is an appalling 8.83. Neris is the third pitcher to be used as closer (even though Mackanin is reluctant to use the term) and the season isn't even a month old yet.

"I'd like to have a lights-out closer, but we don't have one right now," Mackanin said. "We'll continue to look at it."

In the micro, Neris is still probably best suited for the closer's job, but he needs to make some fixes. Two of the three homers he gave up came on fastballs. Mackanin wants to see more splitters. That pitch helped Neris strike out over 11 batters per nine innings last season.

"One thing about Neris is for some reason he's getting away from his split," Mackanin said. "He wants to throw more fastballs and that's not going to work.

"I think Neris is capable of being a closer, but for some reason, he's just not throwing his split as often as he did and that's his out pitch, the pitch that makes him who he is, who he was, and he's gotten away from it and throwing more fastballs. We'll have a talk with him and get it straightened out."

Neris said pitch selection wasn't his problem in the ninth inning.

"It wasn't because they were fastballs," he said. "It was the location.

"It was just a bad day. Everyone has one."

But this bad?

"What a way to lose," Mackanin groaned. "A real letdown."

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

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Tommy Joseph is making the Phillies' situation at first base quite tricky.

Joseph on Thursday continued building on his red-hot month of May by going 2 for 5 with a game-tying homer in the seventh and a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning of the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's hit .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

That'll hold off the eye-popping production of Rhys Hoskins for now (see Future Phillies Report).

Extending it further, Joseph has played 148 career games with 499 plate appearances in the majors. That's just a bit less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. He's provided above-average offensive production from first base.

Most Phillies fans know Joseph's story — big-time catching prospect acquired from the Giants in the 2012 Hunter Pence trade, series of concussions, position switch, hot start to 2016 at Triple A, promotion, production.

It was a long, winding road for Joseph, and when he was asked Thursday if he expected to be this solid 500 plate appearances into his major-league career, he brought up health.

"My goals were to be healthy, to be able to play in 162 games and that's all I really want to be able to do," Joseph said. "That's something I haven't been able to do in my career and it's something that I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to the challenge to go through the mental challenge and the physical challenge and I'd say that's my No. 1 goal, that's my only goal. Because if I'm able to stay healthy and stay on the field then I'm able to enjoy this great game and getting to share it with my teammates."

As for the May adjustments, Joseph said the standard things about communicating with hitting coach Matt Stairs, working in the cage and staying consistent with his approach. His timing wasn't there in April but it's certainly been there in May.

"There's no telling what clicks in a guy, it's just a matter of making a minor adjustment sometimes, possibly getting better pitches to hit," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's no telling what it is, but he just looks a lot more comfortable at the plate."

Bullpen bouncing back
It's been completely overshadowed by the Phillies' recent skid but the bullpen has pitched very well of late. The unit that was overworked and criticized in April has combined to allow just two earned runs in its last 22 2/3 innings. On Thursday, six Phillies relievers — Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez — pitched six scoreless innings.

Neshek made the play of the day, diving and landing on his head to snag a pop-up bunt attempt before turning and firing to first base for the double play.

"I said early on that I think it's one of our strengths," Mackanin said of the bullpen. "And after today you can see why I have a lot of confidence in them."

Neshek, who has pitched in the postseason for four different teams, said Thursday that he thinks this is one of the best bullpens he's ever been around. It's not lip service, either. The unit was terrible in April, there's no getting around that. But some of that really did have to do with the overuse. Setup men were entering in the sixth inning. Opportunities for holds and saves were few and far between. Roles were not defined.

Stuff-wise, repertoire-wise, there is a lot to like about the Phillies' bullpen. Neris, Benoit and Neshek all offer vastly different looks and have track records of success.

While Neshek didn't totally endorse Benoit's comments from a few weeks ago that everything would settle down once the relievers knew specifically which inning they'd pitch, he did say that he too feels most comfortable coming in during a hold opportunity.

"I think my numbers show that I'm best in those situations, coming into a hold opportunity when we're ahead," Neshek said. "We haven't had much of those lately."

The horrendous start to the season for the Phillies' relievers will skew their stats all season long, but it's nice to see that at least one aspect of this team is starting to get into a groove.

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

Vince Velasquez needed 94 pitches to complete five innings in yet another short outing Thursday ... but still, it was a nice step in the right direction.

Velasquez minimized the damage against a stacked Rockies lineup, allowing one run over five innings with seven strikeouts in a 2-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay). He avoided having that one big, meltdown inning. His pitch count still soared because the Rockies fouled off 28 pitches, but it was a promising sign that the longest at-bat of the day — 11 pitches to Charlie Blackmon — ended in a strikeout.

"Today was just huge on my part, even giving up the home run (to Trevor Story), just shutting down the majority of the guys," Velasquez said. "I gave up seven hits, but limiting the damage and getting out of the innings. These guys are just attacking.... I had a plan to attack the guys. You know, prior starts, changing game plans causes damage. So keep planning to attack and work your way around that.

"They're fouling off fastballs, it means they're late on them. I'm not changing my mentality. Why throw a curveball?"

Velasquez met with pitching coach Bob McClure last Sunday after his latest poor start Saturday in Pittsburgh. The key advice he was given was "stick to your strengths." Anybody who's watched Velasquez the last two seasons knows what his strength is: his fastball.

"Definitely. That's my go-to," Velasquez said. "[Before], I was just pretty much having second thoughts about certain pitches and again, just changing my game plan. If you shy away from that, things pretty much go away from you. That's where you get hurt. Today's mentality didn't change at all. I attacked guys with high fastballs in 0-2 counts. Story put a good swing on it and it ended up escalating out."

That was the one big mistake Velasquez made. He threw an 0-2 fastball right down the middle that Story hit out of the park. The Phillies have allowed the most 0-2 home runs in the majors this season (six) and the last two seasons combined (17). For reference, the Marlins have allowed the fewest over that span, just two.

But still, the high fastballs for Velasquez mostly worked on this afternoon. He induced 10 swinging strikes on 72 fastballs.

His off-speed stuff was a different story. The Rockies' first two hits of the day came on curveballs and they went 4 for 6 against his curve, slider and changeup. Colorado's hitters swung through just 2 of the 22 offspeed pitches they saw from Velasquez.

Manager Pete Mackanin said after Velasquez's last start that commanding his off-speed pitches is the key for him. His fastball is great, we all know that, but it just doesn't play multiple times through the order when the other team knows that pitch is coming in every key situation.

"The changeup was actually working a little bit [today]," Velasquez said. "It was down. That's just another pitch I need to work on a little bit more. But it's coming around. The curveball has a good shape to it but, again, it's just locating it."

It's important to keep it all in perspective when it comes to Velasquez. He's a power-armed 24-year-old who's still figuring things out. Most pitchers wouldn't be doing their jobs by going five innings, but with Velasquez it's a baby-steps approach — every small step in a positive direction being a sign that his dominant stuff can someday translate into consistency. 

He'll carry a 2-4 record and 5.55 ERA into his next start Tuesday in Miami.