'Frustrated' Halladay resolves to turn things around

slideshow-040313-phillies-halladay-uspresswire.jpg

'Frustrated' Halladay resolves to turn things around

ATLANTA -- The latest chapter of the Roy Halladay pitching drama was as troubling as the last one.

The struggles of spring training followed Halladay into the regular season Wednesday night as he was knocked out the game early by a free-swinging Atlanta Braves team that scored a 9-2 win over the Phillies, dropping them to 0-2 on the young season (see Instant Replay).

Halladay, who has maintained his hallmark competitiveness while his fastball has waned, traded punches with the rugged Braves’ lineup. Nine of the 10 outs he recorded came on strikeouts (eight swinging) as he got the Braves to chase his changeup and sweeping breaking ball.

Halladay, 35, appeared reluctant to challenge hitters with the old cutter-sinker (fastball) tandem that helped him win two Cy Young awards in his prime. Two of the fastballs that he did throw were hit out of the park. Justin Upton belted a two-run homer on a sinker in the first inning and rookie Evan Gattis smacked a solo homer on a cutter in the fourth.

Command was a problem for Halladay in spring training and it was again on this rainy night.

He needed 40 pitches to get through the first inning and 95 (55 strikes) to get 10 outs. He went to three-ball counts on eight of 19 hitters. In all, he was tagged for six hits, five runs and three walks in 3 1/3 innings. Halladay’s fastball touched 92 mph on the stadium radar gun in the first inning, but sat mostly 88 to 90 mph. That’s enough to win some games -- if he can locate it down in the zone.

Halladay’s health problems (back and shoulder) and ineffectiveness last season created worry throughout the Phillies organization and the right-hander’s poor spring (6.06 ERA) only heightened the anxiety. If Wednesday night’s outing added to the angst, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. wasn’t letting on.

“I was oddly encouraged,” said Amaro, who took in the game from a box above home plate. “Any time you can get that many swings and misses it’s a good sign. The stuff was good. He just didn’t command it in the strike zone. He still needs reps with some of the mechanical changes he’s made.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was also upbeat.

“I’ve seen improvement the last three times out,” he said. “I still think he’s going to be OK. The velocity is improving. We’ll see.”

Halladay was clearly dejected as he spoke softly at his locker after the game.

“I’m frustrated,” he said. “I should have gone deeper than that. I wasn’t aggressive enough early in the count. I went deep counts. Really, that’s the most frustrating part.

“I’m going to clean that up and be more aggressive. I shouldn’t take three or four pitches to put guys away. We can get ground balls earlier in the count or do something to be more efficient and get deeper in the game. I’d rather get beat 20-0 and pitch eight innings than pitch 3 1/3. That’s got to change.”

Halladay said the rainy conditions were tough, but no excuse for his lack of command.

He wasn’t happy about either home run pitch. Gattis’ home run came on a mistake, Halladay said. The Upton home run came on a 1-2 pitch that he was “not fully committed to.” Catcher Erik Kratz set up down and in on Upton. In retrospect, Halladay said he should have come up and in on Upton to set him up for something away. Kratz is filling in for starting catcher Carlos Ruiz, a Halladay favorite. Ruiz is serving a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a PED.

Halladay’s postgame analysis of his work was interesting. He admitted to trying to pick corners last year because his velocity was down. He believes his arm strength is returning and he can start challenging hitters more.

“Every pitch doesn’t have to be on black,” he said. “I just need to be down (in the strike zone) and we’ll be more efficient. That’s something that needs to be addressed quickly. As far as arm strength, I feel I can open it up and not try to be so fine, which I’ve always done. I need to open it up a little and let movement and everything else take care of itself. I need to be more aggressive in the strike zone and make them put the ball in play.”

The question remains: Can Halladay get the ball down consistently? That was a problem in spring training.

Halladay seems aware that his struggles have become one of the major sporting issues in Philadelphia. He has faith in himself that he will turn things around.

“Honestly, I don’t care what you guys write,” he told a group of reporters at his locker. “You’re welcome to write whatever you want. I feel like the progression has been there. The results haven’t and that’s frustrating. I feel like they are going to come. I wanted them to come sooner than they have and I’m pushing for them to come sooner than they have and sometimes that’s part of the problem.”

Phillies to add 3 players Friday; Nick Williams iffy for September call-up

Phillies to add 3 players Friday; Nick Williams iffy for September call-up

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said he expects the club to add three players from the minors on Friday. Rosters expand on Thursday, an off day for the Phils.

“A couple of relievers, maybe a hitter,” Mackanin said before Wednesday night's game against Washington.

Mackanin would not name names because a lot can change in a day or two.

Darin Ruf seems to be a logical choice to be the hitter Mackanin referred to. He opened the season with the big club, but got just 57 at-bats and hit just .158 before being sent to Triple A when Tommy Joseph came up. Since going down, Ruf has hit .298 with 20 homers, 65 RBIs and a .895 OPS in 94 games for Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies will likely add two relievers to fortify the bullpen. Patrick Schuster, a lefty who was recently claimed off waivers from Oakland, could be a possibility. Colton Murray, Luis Garcia, Dalier Hinojosa and Elvis Araujo all could be possibilities, as well. All have spent time in the majors this season.

The Phils can’t completely pick over the Triple A roster because Lehigh Valley’s regular season runs through Monday and that club is likely to be in the International League playoffs.

Once Lehigh Valley’s season is over, more pitching could come. Starters David Buchanan and Phil Klein could be possibilities. Alec Asher, currently serving a suspension for testing positive for PEDs, is expected to be activated by the big club next week and could provide some innings to the starting rotation.

It’s unclear which prospects will come up. Catcher Jorge Alfaro seems to be a shoo-in after Double A Reading’s playoff run. Shortstop J.P. Crawford is not on the 40-man roster and does not need to be protected on it this winter. That could prevent him from coming up as the Phillies look to use the 40-man roster spot on a player that they could lose if not protected. Outfielder Nick Williams seemed to be a lock to come up a month ago, but his performance has slipped at Triple A in recent weeks and he now looks iffy.

Williams, like Alfaro, was acquired from Texas in the Cole Hamels trade last summer. The lefty-hitting outfielder entered Wednesday hitting .265 with 12 homers, 62 RBIs and just a .294 on-base percentage in 119 games. He entered Wednesday hitting just .187 with a paltry .204 on-base percentage in the month of August. He had struck out 34 times and walked just once in 93 trips to the plate in August.

That certainly cannot sit well with a front office that puts a premium on players who "control the strike zone."

AFL rosters announced
The Phillies will send six players to the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. The group includes three pitchers, right-handed relievers Victor Arano and Miguel Nunez, and lefty starter Brandon Liebrandt, second baseman Scott Kingery, third baseman Mitch Walding, and outfielder Aaron Brown. Brown replaces outfielder Andrew Pullin, who recently went on the disabled list at Double A Reading with an elbow injury.

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph starts for 1st time against Gio Gonzalez

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph starts for 1st time against Gio Gonzalez

Tommy Joseph is back in the starting lineup … as he's expected to be for most of the final month of the season. Joseph bats fourth behind third baseman Maikel Franco.

Joseph did not start Tuesday night in the Phillies' 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals. The 25-year-old is hitting .251 with 17 home runs and 34 RBIs.

The slugger has a significantly higher average against left-handed pitching than righties, despite clubbing 12 of his 17 homers against right-handed pitchers.

Joseph has yet to faced Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez.

In other lineup notes, Tyler Goeddel gets the start in left field and will hit eighth, while A.J. Ellis gets his second start as a Phillie. He'll catch Adam Morgan.

Here is the full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, RF
6. Freddy Galvis, SS
7. A.J. Ellis, C
8. Tyler Goeddel, LF
9. Adam Morgan, P

For more on tonight's game, read Steven Tydings' game notes.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies (60-72) vs. Nationals (77-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

For the second time in less than a week, the Phillies try to avoid a sweep by winning the final game of a series against a division opponent. Adam Morgan will try to overcome the Phillies' struggles as well as his own, while the Nationals toss out veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez (see tonight's lineup)

Here are five things to know for Wednesday night.

1. Close to quality
For just the fifth time this year, Morgan put together a quality start for the Phillies on Aug. 19 against the Cardinals. In his follow up outing against the Mets on Friday, he came quite close to another one.

If it wasn't obvious from his 1-8 record and his 6.50 ERA, Morgan has been absymal this season. He's shown glimpses of his talent, such as his strong start against the Cards or his seven innings of one-run ball on May 10 in Atlanta. Yet for the most part, his outings have been filled with hits and home runs.

Back to Friday. He had gotten through the Mets' lineup with just two runs in five innings, keeping the Phillies in the game while Bartolo Colon held them at bay. But a grand slam ended his night and gave him an ugly six-run, eight-hit line in five innings of play. While he tied a career-high with eight strikeouts, he allowed three home runs. That simply won't get it done.

In his final start of the month, he needs to put together a strong outing to prove he's worthy of a rotation spot even after rosters expand in September. If he keeps allowing more runs than innings pitched, it'd be tough to keep handing him the ball.

2. Lefty in decline
In the first two games of the series, the Phillies saw two starters that they will see plenty of in the future: Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer. Now they face a man who headed their rotations of the past.

Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals in 2012 for his age-26 season after becoming an All Star for the first time. Not only did he come up with another All Star appearance in 2012, he won a league-high 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote.

However, that was Gonzalez's peak. His ERA has declined every season since 2012 and he no longer strikes out more than a batter an inning. When he was truly at his best, he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark at a very solid rate (0.4 home runs per nine innings in 2012). He was able to match that mark in 2015, but he's given up his most home runs per nine innings (1.0) since his rookie season in 2009. 

The bad news for the Phillies is Gonzalez has a solid track record against them. He's 8-6 in 18 starts against them with a 2.82 ERA. He strikes out almost exactly a batter an inning in those games while not walking as many batters as he usually does. He's even better at Citizens Bank with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts. 

Despite giving up just two earned runs over 13⅓ innings against the Phillies in April, he did not earn a win in his two starts. In fact, he lost his second start against them while the Nationals lost both games. 

3. Outperforming expectations
The Phillies are nowhere close to their 14-10 start, but that was to be expected. Very few thought the Phils could begin the season on such a strong run, which lasted into mid-May. 

Right now, they have a 60-72 record. However, their pythagorean record (which uses their runs scored and runs allowed to project what their record should be) is 51-81, nine games worse. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals are 77-55, comfortably in first place in the NL East. But their pythagorean record is 81-51, four games better than their current pace. 

There are plenty of reasons why teams can outperform or underperform compared to their pythagorean record. A team that outperforms can have a series of blowout wins that inflate their runs scored despite a 10-run outburst only contributes to one win. Teams that underperform tend to have lot of success in close games (or have suffered a few blowout losses), yet they also usually regress and start playing more toward their projected record.

The easiest way to explain why the Phillies and Nationals would have the out or underperformed is their bullpens. The Phils have had a strong backend of their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris, who have been able to close out many close Phillies wins. Meanwhile, the Nationals had Jonathan Papelbon closing for them. Papelbon had a poor enough season to be designated for assignment after blowing a few games this summer. 

The other reasons are the ones listed above: the Nationals' offense has produced some big outbursts thanks to hitters like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and the Phillies have had some blowout losses (that Mets series last week was a great example). 

However, the main takeaway from this may be the surplus wins the Phillies have produced thanks to their bullpen. Without Neris or Gomez, the team would not be where they are because close leads wouldn't have been as safe as they've been. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With the news that Ryan Howard will be getting less playing time, Tommy Joseph is the man who will benefit. He takes on a lefty tonight, although he hasn't faced Gonzalez before because he was not in the majors in April.

Nationals: Despite going 0 for 4 on Tuesday, former Phillie Jayson Werth has been on a tear this month. He's hit seven home runs, including one Monday. He also has a .346 average against lefties.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 1-7 against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this year. That includes a sweep by the Nationals from May 30-June 1, the first sweep by the Nationals at CBP since Sept. 20-22, 2011 (a four-game series).

• Freddy Galvis has the most at-bats of any current Phillie against Gonzalez. He's 8 for 31 with a home run, two doubles and a walk.

• Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa is 2 for 6 against Morgan with two home runs. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBIs. 

• The Phillies are 12-13 in August despite have allowed 150 runs and scored just 111. The Nationals are 16-11 this month.