'Electricity' of big-armed Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez gaining steam at Lakewood

'Electricity' of big-armed Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez gaining steam at Lakewood

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — The first pitch of Wednesday’s game turned into a groundout. But then with one away in the top of the first, the Sixto Sanchez Show began.

On the big screen in center field at FirstEnergy Park, the pitch speed flashed: 102 mph.

The next one was the same: 102 mph.

There were at least five or six triple-digit pitches thrown in the opening frame by the BlueClaws’ 18-year-old righty, but that’s almost what’s expected from him nowadays. Still a few weeks away from his 19th birthday and just 136 innings into his pro career, Sanchez is turning heads and drawing comparisons that no one could’ve predicted two years ago.

As Lakewood’s pitching coach Brian Sweeney explains, even the casual fan will notice Sanchez’s tempo, his pattern of outs early in the count and certainly his triple-digit speed.

While the speed is obvious, the young ace’s other patterns are, too.

“I wish I knew [where his command comes from.] I’d bottle it and I’d be a millionaire,” BlueClaws manager Marty Malloy said. “Or if I knew that, everyone on our staff would be like that. It’s something he’s worked on. 

“He works every day, he throws his bullpens, he does his side work, he does his touch-and-feel, he does his dry work. But his fastball command is ahead of most people his age.”

Sanchez’s command is, in a word, impressive. In 56 1/3 innings at the Low A level, he has 54 strikeouts to only six walks. Opponents are hitting .199 against him, and Wednesday night, he carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning.

And oh yeah, he needed just 62 pitches — 45 of which were strikes — to go six innings. The game was wrapped up in a crisp 2:05 and Sanchez had his fourth win of the season.

It’s easy to forget that he’s still a ways from the majors, even when his stuff compares with that of just about anyone.

“His delivery is well beyond his years for pitching for such a short time. He really does a good job of using his legs efficiently, which in turn makes him pitch efficiently,” Sweeney said. “It’s something we preach as an organization — attacking the zone, a repeatable delivery that helps you attack the zone, and it starts right from when he was down in the Dominican Republic at our academy.”

The Rome Braves’ hitters tried attacking Sanchez’s fastball early in the count to no avail. It was pop up after pop up with a couple of broken bats in between.

When they tried to be patient with the fireballer, he threw it past them pretty much every time. And if he didn’t, there was a slick changeup and a nasty low-80s spinner waiting in the wings.

Since the Phils plucked Sanchez from San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic just two years ago, this is what he has done time and time again. Only now, though, is he getting the attention worthy of his stuff. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 18th overall prospect in its annual midseason rankings released last week.

Still, you wouldn’t know it just by looking at the 6-foot, 185-pound righty. And even if he knows the expectations have risen, you can’t tell it when he’s on the mound.

“I don’t think [the expectations change anything] in his development because he’s a happy-go-lucky guy,” Malloy said. “He’s the same guy every day, too. He’s a great kid, got a smile on his face every day, he knows the day he takes the ball, it’s business.

“Obviously, he’s on pitch limits, pitch counts, and that’s just to protect him for the future. But as far as his arm, it’s electricity. He’s [hitting] triple digits, he’s got a major-league changeup right now, he’s doing some stuff with his breaking ball to get better right now, but he’s got all the gas in the tank.”

On the field, it’s all there for Sanchez. Off it, there is still plenty of room to grow.

For one, he still only speaks Spanish, but is learning English with the help of his teammates and the Phillies’ organization. On top of that, he has plenty of body to fill out.

Lakewood is just the third stop in a series of experiences at the minor-league level, and there is no reason to think Sanchez’s growth is going to slow anytime soon.

“There are things he has to develop,” Sweeney said. “This is his first full season. He’s never played more than 70 games in a season, so he’s going to get the most innings he’s ever had this year. He’s going to take the most bus rides, he’s going to be in different states in the United States eating different food.

“These are all important parts of his development because as he goes up, he’ll be flying somewhere. The more you learn each year, the better you develop as a man and as a pitcher.”

Sanchez could have very easily finished out Wednesday’s start. He probably would have been able to throw a complete game with less than 100 pitches.

But one could legitimately argue his right arm is the most important body part in the entire organization. If you asked any one of the handful of scouts in attendance, they would probably tell you the same.

Remember, the kid is 18 years old. You probably won’t see him on the mound at Citizens Bank Park anytime soon.

So until then, the message from his coaches is short and sweet.

“Toe that rubber every sixth day and be consistent,” Sweeney said.

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

BOX SCORE

In the end, things reverted to form: The Dodgers won and the Phillies lost.

The Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, the Phillies to who-knows-where.

Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon to beat the Phils, 5-4, and salvage the finale of a four-game series (see observations).

The Dodgers, the majors’ best team at 97-56, lowered their magic number to one for clinching a fifth straight NL West championship. The Phils, baseball’s second-worst team at 61-92, were left with a lovely parting gift: hope.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” J.P. Crawford, the rookie shortstop-turned-third baseman, said of the series as a whole. “It showed us, or showed me, we can compete with the best teams in the league. Just can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

Crawford, the 16th overall pick in 2013, drew three walks in four plate appearances and fielded eight chances flawlessly, at least four of which could be described as moderately difficult.

In addition, Mark Leiter Jr. pitched six strong innings, Rhys Hoskins did another Rhys Hoskins thing — i.e., hit a two-run double in the fifth — and Nick Williams launched a two-run homer.

So it was that the Phillies finished the homestand with a 7-3 record. They have won eight of their last 12, and are 32-34 since the All-Star break, after going 29-58 beforehand.

There are those who question how much it means for an also-ran to excel in September, when the pressure is off. It would appear that Phillies manager Pete Mackanin is not among those people. He mentioned in particular how valuable it is for his young relievers to face teams in the thick of the race.

“To get this kind of experience is worth a lot,” he said. “It’s a big part of this year.”

One of those relievers, Ricardo Pinto, faltered Thursday, allowing those two seventh-inning runs to take the loss. But Leiter, who had pitched to a 9.39 ERA in three previous September starts, allowed just one earned run on five hits over his six innings of work. He struck out three and walked one.

So it’s one for his résumé going forward. And he said a strong finish to the season — the Phils have nine games left — is “important for everybody.”

“I don't know if it's more important for us than other teams,” he said, “but you want to finish strong and start strong. Those are the goals. That's baseball. You're going to have some ups and downs, and to take a series is a good thing.”

Crawford, called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 5, hit .200 without a walk in his first six major-league games. In his last nine, he is slashing .296/.474/.481, with 10 walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.

“Just a matter of getting my feet settled down,” he said, “and just being comfortable in the box.”

“It’s good to see,” Mackanin said. “He was advertised as someone who controls the strike zone and he’s proven that he can do that. Walk’s as good as a hit — the old saying. He keeps innings alive and he doesn’t expand the strike zone, he makes the pitcher get him out and he’ll take a walk, which is important.”

Speaking generally about such an approach (and not about Crawford in particular), Mackanin had only one small reservation.

“One of the problems with a guy who walks too often is you’d like him to be a little more aggressive at times,” he said, “but in general it’s good to see.”

Crawford made his eighth start at third base, and while he doesn’t possess the power bat normally required of someone who plays the position, he certainly looks like he can hold his own with the glove.

“There’s not really much transition,” he said. “I’m just going over there, reacting, catching the ball, throwing the ball.”

If nothing else, he gives the Phillies a possible alternative to Maikel Franco, who has struggled all year.

And if nothing else, the team as a whole has shown there is some reason for hope.

Phillies-Dodgers observations: Phils lose, 5-4, fail to sweep MLB-best Dodgers

Phillies-Dodgers observations: Phils lose, 5-4, fail to sweep MLB-best Dodgers

BOX SCORE

The Los Angeles Dodgers scored twice in the seventh inning to take the lead for good, en route to a 5-4 victory over the Phillies on Thursday afternoon.

Los Angeles, which salvaged the last game of the four-game series and snapped a four-game losing streak, sliced its magic number to clinch its fifth straight NL West championship to one.

The Phillies finished a 10-game homestand with a 7-3 mark, and lost for just the fourth time in 12 games.

With the Dodgers down, 4-3, veteran outfielder Andre Ethier led off the eighth with a pinch-hit homer off Phils reliever Ricardo Pinto (1-2). Chris Taylor followed with a triple, and one out later Cody Bellinger drove him in with a grounder to Rhys Hoskins at first base.

Warren Buehler (1-0), the fourth of seven Dodgers pitchers, earned the victory with an inning of scoreless relief. Kenley Jansen worked 1 1/3 innings to earn his 39th save.

Here are some observations:

• Hoskins gave the Phillies a 4-2 lead when he smoked a 2-0 offering from Los Angeles reliever Josh Fields, a 98-mph fastball, up the gap in left-center for a two-run double in the fifth. 

• Nick Williams hit a first-pitch changeup from Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda for an opposite-field two-run homer in the third, erasing a 2-0 deficit. It was Williams’ 11th homer in 74 games with the Phillies this season.

• J.P. Crawford, a natural shortstop, made no fewer than four outstanding plays at third base, the first two on groundballs off the bat of Logan Forsythe, and the last two on bouncers by Austin Barnes. In the second, Crawford dove to his left to snag Forsythe’s smash and threw to second for the force, and in the fourth he short-hopped a slowly hit bouncer and fired to first. In the fifth, Crawford ranged to his left to flag down Barnes’ grounder, and with Taylor at third and the infield up in the seventh again, Crawford snagged a ball off Barnes’ bat. The runner, Taylor, wound up scoring anyway, on Bellinger’s infield out.

 • Mark Leiter Jr. was left with a no-decision after going six innings and allowing three runs (one earned) on five hits, while striking out three and walking one. The first two batters he faced in the top of the first reached, but only one of them scored, on Yasiel Puig’s sacrifice fly. Leiter surrendered an unearned run in the third, and Curtis Granderson’s solo homer in the sixth.

• Victor Arano had quite the adventure in his inning on the mound. He entered in the eighth inning, after Hoby Milner walked pinch-hitter Kiki Hernandez, and proceeded to strike out the next two hitters. Then he walked two, to loaded the bases, before retiring Taylor on a groundout to end the inning. Arano threw 21 pitches, 10 for strikes. 

• Maeda departed after three innings, having allowed two runs on three hits.

• The Phillies saw their 100-inning errorless string end five pitches into the game, when leftfielder Aaron Altherr misplayed a single by Taylor, the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter.  

• Los Angeles 3B Justin Turner was hit on the right hand by a Leiter pitch in the first inning. He later left the game, and while X-rays were negative, he was diagnosed with a bruised thumb.

• The Phillies’ final road trip of the season consists of three games, beginning Friday in Atlanta. RHP Ben Lively (3-6, 3.94) opposes LHP Sean Newcomb (3-8, 4.32).