Domonic Brown credits 'angel' Joyner for progress with bat

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Domonic Brown credits 'angel' Joyner for progress with bat

CLEARWATER, Fla. – This two-hitting-coach-thing might already be paying dividends for the Phillies.

Domonic Brown is off to a terrific start in the Grapefruit League, and he credits a tip from Wally Joyner, the team’s new assistant hitting coach, for some of that.

Early in camp, Joyner noticed that Brown had a tendency to wrap his hands and wrists around the bat handle instead of cradling it in the base of his fingers. Joyner suggested that Brown adjust his grip, and it has a created quicker, whippier swing. The quicker swing has resulted in Brown’s going 3 for 7 with two homers, three runs and a walk in the first four games. Brown also had a single and a double in an intrasquad game last week.

“It seemed like God maybe sent an angel down toward me,” Brown said of Joyner. “He showed me a little something then, boom, it clicked and I’ve been working hard every day.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Brown provided the highlight of camp when he launched a mammoth home run that cleared the batter’s eye beyond the centerfield wall at Bright House Field.

“That’s the longest ball I’ve ever seen hit here,” Jimmy Rollins said.

Sure, Brown’s home run came late in the game against a pitcher named Zach Nuding, who has yet to pitch beyond Single A. But it was still quite impressive, a cannon shot on a 2-2 fastball. The home run started a three-run rally that also included a two-run shot by prospect Tommy Joseph that propelled the Phillies to a 4-3 win over the New York Yankees (see story).

“Two-strike approach,” Brown said. “I saw a pitch up, took a good swing, and that was it. I knew it was gone off the bat. That’s all I’m trying to do -- hit the ball hard.”

Brown’s hot start is noticeable even beyond the stat sheet. The 25-year-old outfielder, always a spring-training focal point because of his tantalizing potential, appears more comfortable and confident in his third big-league camp.

“I think I’ve been through a lot,” said Brown, referring to the ups and downs of the last two seasons. “Coming in, I’ve been here before. I’m just going out, playing hard, trying to be fundamentally sound, and having fun.”

Past springs weren’t fun for Brown. He got off to an 0-for-15 start two years ago then broke his hand on a swing. Last year, he came to camp and ended up being sent back to Triple A for more development time.

Brown admits that he “probably” put pressure on himself in past camps.

“It’s a lot to handle with [the media] and everything,” he said. “It takes a while to get used to. I’ve been going through this a while.”

The flip side to Brown is Darin Ruf. Last year’s minor-league home run king is competing with Brown for a spot in the outfield. Ruf is hitless in his first eight at-bats. He appears to be pressing and got a day off Tuesday.

It’s early -- very early -- in the exhibition season. You can’t read too much into Ruf’s struggles or Brown’s successes. But if Brown keeps this up, if he is ready to put it all together, club officials will be thrilled. They made him an untouchable in trade talks in years past because they thought he had the potential to be an all-star.

Brown also homered Sunday against the Tigers on a line drive to right-center. Brown said he hit that ball even harder than Tuesday’s bomb.

Manager Charlie Manuel is seeing more of a compact swing from Brown. It starts with the legs.

“He’s got good balance,” Manuel said. “He’s slowed things down at the plate. He’s keeping his balance and catching the ball out in front.”

Brown had knee problems last season. He worked a lot on his legs this winter and believes a strong base has helped his balance. And he’s also as strong as steel. Where once he was a 6-foot-6 stringbean, he is now 235 pounds of muscle.

Defense, whether in right field or left, remains a concern for Brown, but he’s working at it daily. In fact, he spent most of the winter in Clearwater working on it.

“I’m out there because I want to, not because they’re forcing me to do it,” Brown said.

Brown has a long connection with Steve Henderson, the Phillies’ new hitting coach. Henderson was the Phils’ minor-league hitting coordinator during Brown’s time in the minors. The Phillies added Joyner as an assistant hitting coach this winter and it turns out Brown has a connection with him, too. They went to the same high school -- Redan High School outside of Atlanta -- though Brown graduated in 2006 and Joyner in 1980.

“Both of them have been great,” Brown said of his hitting coaches.

So far this spring, Brown has been pretty good, too.

Instant Replay: Phillies 3, Marlins 2

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Instant Replay: Phillies 3, Marlins 2

BOX SCORE

Jeremy Hellickson gave the Phillies six more quality innings Thursday, and he and reliever Pat Neshek each struck out Giancarlo Stanton in big run-scoring situations to help the Phils to a two-game sweep and their sixth straight win.

The Phillies didn't do much hitting on the afternoon but took advantage of opportunities with runners in scoring position to claim the 3-2 win.

They are 11-9 as they hit the road for a tough, seven-game trip against the Dodgers and Cubs.

The Marlins are 10-10.

Starting pitching report
Hellickson encountered some traffic in three different innings but was able to pitch his way out of trouble. He allowed one run on seven hits over six innings with no walks and one strikeout.

It's the second straight start he hasn't walked a batter, and he's issued just three in 30 innings this season.

Hellickson continues to get outs without striking anyone out. His only K of the afternoon, though, was clutch — it came against Stanton with nobody out and runners on the corners in the fourth inning.

The fourth inning was the turning point of Hellickson's outing and really the game. Runners were on first and third with Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto coming up. Hellickson struck out Stanton, got Ozuna to pop up and Realmuto to line out, all on changeups. 

The Marlins are 7 for 54 (.130) against Hellickson's changeup since the start of last season.

Through five starts, Hellickson is 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. His trade value continues to rise, as does his importance to this pitching staff.

For the Marlins, Edinson Volquez missed the strike zone plenty but gave up only three runs (two earned) over 5⅔ innings. He walked four batters for the third straight start.

Bullpen report
Pat Neshek inherited a jam in the seventh and allowed a run to score but retired Martin Prado and Stanton to end the threat. 

Neshek is a real weapon in the bullpen because of his funky delivery and unorthodox repertoire. He's already made big bats like Yoenis Cespedes and Stanton look silly this season. It pays to have different looks out of the back end of your bullpen.

Joaquin Benoit pitched a 1-2-3 eighth with two strikeouts. He's put just two men on base in five scoreless innings since being moved back to the eighth inning.

Hector Neris needed just seven pitches to earn his third save in as many chances.

At the plate
The Phillies didn't have many hits but were able to push runs across when they had men in scoring position. Freddy Galvis tripled and scored in the third inning, and Brock Stassi tripled in an insurance run in the sixth.

Galvis enjoys himself some Volquez — lifetime, he's 6 for 10 with two doubles, a triple and a homer off him.

It was Stassi's first career triple.

Maikel Franco reached base three more times with two singles and a walk. Franco has been locked in over the last week, going 10 for 23 with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout over his last six games. His batting line has crept up to .221/.291/.403. Not great, but it was .148/.217/.278 a week ago.

And this is a little thing, but Andrew Knapp, batting eighth, had two quality plate appearances his first two times up, singling and walking with nobody on and two outs to turn the lineup over twice.

Phillie-killers silenced
Prado has more hits against the Phillies than he has against any other team. And he did have a solo homer Wednesday night, but the .305 lifetime hitter off the Phils went just 2 for 8 in the series. It's key to get him out ahead of Yelich and Stanton.

Ozuna, meanwhile, went 0 for 8 in the series. He entered as a .310 hitter against the Phillies and a .272 hitter vs. the rest of the division.

In the field
Trying quickly to turn a double play on Odubel Herrera in the first inning, Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon made an errant throw to first base that trickled past Justin Bour and allowed Daniel Nava to score. It was a heads-up baserunning play by Nava, who would have just advanced from second to third if not for Gordon's throw.

Franco made a tough play on a short-hop off the bat of Ozuna in a key spot with one out and Stanton on second base in the sixth inning. It was an all-or-nothing play — had Franco not timed the hop perfectly with his backhand, it would have put Hellickson in a jam.

On the bases
On consecutive pitches to Franco in the first inning, Herrera stole second and was then thrown out at third by a pretty good margin. The Phillies challenged that Prado didn't apply the tag but there wasn't enough evidence to overturn the call on the field.

Herrera is 3 for 5 on stolen base attempts this season.

Health check
Reliever Edubray Ramos was removed in the seventh inning after taking a line drive off the elbow.

Up next
The Phillies head out West for a three-game series at Dodger Stadium and it looks like they'll avoid Clayton Kershaw after all. He was initially scheduled to pitch Sunday but here are the updated pitching probables:

Friday night at 10:10 — Jerad Eickhoff (0-1, 2.55) vs. Kenta Maeda (1-2, 8.05)

Saturday night at 9:10 — Zach Eflin (0-0, 2.25) vs. Brandon McCarthy (3-0, 2.25)

Sunday afternoon at 4:10 — Nick Pivetta (MLB debut) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (0-4, 4.64)

Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Phils go for 6 straight behind Hellickson

Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Phils go for 6 straight behind Hellickson

Phillies vs. Marlins
1:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

1. Hellickson on a roll
The run Jeremy Hellickson is on likely played a role in the Phillies' pushing back Nick Pivetta's first start until the weekend. Hellickson will pitch tonight with one extra day of rest between starts.

The Phillies' acquisition of Hellickson prior to 2016 is looking like a right place, right time situation. They appear to have landed him just as he was entering his prime and understanding what about his repertoire works and what doesn't.

Through four starts this season, Hellickson is 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA and 0.71 WHIP. His opponents have hit just .169. And keep in mind that two of those starts were against the Nationals — who own the best record in baseball — and one was against the Reds, who have swung well the entire month.

Hellickson has now made 36 starts with the Phillies and gone 15-10 with a 3.51 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He's walked just 48 batters in 213 innings.

His changeup continues to be an equalizing pitch, and that should play well against a free-swinging Marlins lineup. Over the last two seasons, Hellickson's opponents are 36 for 233 against his changeup for a .155 batting average. Only Stephen Strasburg, Kyle Hendricks and Michael Fulmer have a lower opponents' BA on their changeup.

Helly faced the Marlins six times last season (more than he faced any other team), and went 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA. He walked just three batters in 40⅓ innings, which again shows you a little bit about how impatient Miami's lineup can be. The only player in Miami's lineup with above-average plate selection is Christian Yelich.

Current Fish have hit just .206 against Hellickson in over 200 plate appearances. The only players with decent numbers against him are Marcell Ozuna (5 for 20, 3 doubles and a homer) and Yelich (6 for 20). Giancarlo Stanton is 1 for 15 with five K's against Hellickson.

2. A look at Volquez
The Phillies get well-traveled, 33-year-old right-hander Edinson Volquez this afternoon. He's had three rough starts in a row in his first year with Miami, allowing 11 runs in 13⅔ innings. 

He's had back-to-back four-walk games and has yet to pitch past the sixth inning.

Volquez is an enigma. He's always had good stuff and he's never allowed many home runs, but his control can go at any time. He had a 3.04 ERA in 2014 with the Pirates and a 3.55 ERA the next year with the Royals, but last season he was downright bad — 5.37 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 76 walks in 189⅓ innings for Kansas City.

As a result, Volquez did not find a long-term deal in free agency, signing a two-year, $22 million contract with the Marlins, who badly needed starting pitching.

Through all of his ups and downs, Volquez has always handled the Phillies. He's 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA and a strikeout per inning in six career starts against them. 

Because Volquez hasn't faced the Phils since 2014, only a few players have seen him. The ones that have, though, are 15 for 35 (.429) with five doubles and a homer. Freddy Galvis and Daniel Nava are a combined 8 for 13 and Galvis has two doubles and a longball.

Volquez is a four-pitch guy: sinker, changeup, fastball, curveball. He uses those four pitches about equally against lefties and righties alike.

3. Franco making presence felt
Maikel Franco's month of April hasn't been all good, but here we are on April 27 and only five players in the majors — Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon and Ozuna — have more RBIs than his 20.

Yes, eight of those 20 RBIs came on two swings, but isn't that also a good thing? 

RBIs do not tell a complete story about a player. They are also not completely meaningless the way many baseball fans my age claim. Runs are required to win baseball games. Runs matter. RBIs are rarely a predictive stat, but there isn't a baseball player alive who will tell you they're a useless stat.

Now, to put this in perspective, Franco has had a ton of RBI opportunities so far this season as the top of the Phillies' order continues to get on base. In the National League, only Murphy, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have had more plate appearances with men on base.

Stats aside, it's been good to see Franco more under control at the plate. He remarked Wednesday that it was the first time he lost his helmet on a swing after doing it 20 to 25 times last season.

The grand slam off Marlins left-hander Wei-Yin Chen was on a 92 mph fastball right down the middle. But you know what? You still have to hit that pitch and Franco hadn't done much capitalizing on mistakes the first few weeks of the season.

4. Today's lineup
An afternoon off for Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp and Aaron Altherr. 

Andres Blanco gets his first start of the season.

1. Daniel Nava, LF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Andres Blanco, 2B
7. Brock Stassi, 1B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

5. This and that
• Hellickson's first inning today will be the 1,000th of his MLB career.

• A Vince Velasquez note from last night: His 19 first-pitch strikes on 26 pitches was a rate of 73 percent, well above the 58 percent mark he's compiled altogether as a Phillie. If you're facing 26 batters, that's the difference of starting four more counts 0-1 as opposed to 1-0, which is the most important count differential for pitchers.

• Phillies last April: 3.3 runs per game, .231 batting average, 21 home runs in 24 games.

Phillies this April: 4.8 runs per game, .253 batting average, 22 home runs in 19 games.