Got defense? Brown, Young had it on Thursday

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Got defense? Brown, Young had it on Thursday

CLEARWATER, Fla. – There were a number of reasons for the Phillies’ disappointing season last year.

Injuries.

Poor bullpen work.

Don’t underestimate defense.

In their 102-win season of 2011, the Phils had the best fielding percentage in the major leagues and made just 74 errors.

Last season, they slipped to 15th in fielding percentage and made 101 errors while losing their five-year hold on the NL East.

Coming into this camp, defense loomed as a large question mark for the Phils because some of the players they were adding to their lineup had shortcomings on that side of the ball, and because, well, the team is getting older and age can rob a player of range.

Defense is still an issue for this team. Charlie Manuel moaned about it after some sloppy games early in camp. But Manuel had no complaints Thursday. His team played excellent defense in a 10-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins at windy Bright House Field.

What had to make Manuel happiest were the guys who played the good defense. Question mark Domonic Brown made two nice running plays in the outfield. Question mark Michael Young made two nice plays at third base. And Chase Utley, the man whose knees are always a quiet concern, showed big hops as he rose high in the air to knock down a line drive and save a run.

“That’s what you want,” said starting pitcher Cliff Lee, speaking for all the pitchers.

Six percent of the runs allowed by the Phillies in 2011 were unearned. That number rose to nine percent in 2012.

How discouraging is it on a pitcher when he’s not backed by good defense?

“Very,” Lee said.

Lee acknowledged that the Phillies could have played better defense last year but added that there were a lot of shortcomings to the team’s game in 2012. How much can the Phils improve on defense this season? Time will tell. Young and Brown will have a lot to say about that and so will Delmon Young and Darin Ruf in the outfield. One thing is clear: If the Phillies play as porously as they did last season, they will be in trouble. It could seriously impact the strength of the team -- the pitching staff.

“We want guys to make plays,” Lee said. “This is the big leagues. We expect guys to make plays. If they don’t, you have to get the ball back and try to make another pitch and hopefully they make the plays. I think everyone holds each other accountable as far as that goes. It’s not like you’re mad at him or he did it on purpose, but I think all of us expect each other to make fundamentally sound plays. When you’re giving outs away, you’re giving the other team a chance to win.

“It’s about focus and making sure you’re in the moment and anticipating the ball more than anything. You’ve got to do that on the mound, too. It’s not just the position players. It’s the pitchers, too. It’s everyone. It’s something we can all do a better job on.”

Brown continues to have an excellent spring. A 2-for-4 performance Thursday left him hitting .400. His swing looks easy and strong. The ball is jumping off his bat. Gone is the uptightness of previous spring auditions. He is playing with a relaxed, confident gait. That confidence is also showing in the field. Brown is running all-out for balls. He’s not tentative.

On Thursday, Brown cut off one ball in left-center, saving a double and made a long run to snare a sinking line drive. He said he wouldn’t have made either play last year. Of course, sore knees would have been part of the reason for that. He’s healthy now. But he’s also throwing caution to the wind, playing full speed and letting things happen instead of forcing them. That comes from confidence.

“He ran like he wanted to get those balls,” Manuel said.

“I’m feeling good, feeling healthy, that’s the key,” Brown said. “I’m out there having fun, trying to make good reads.”

On Thursday, Brown did more than try. He succeeded. His work -- and Young’s at third base -- was a step in the right direction for a team that needs to improve its defense.

Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford learning to fight through failure

Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford learning to fight through failure

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Plastered on a wall outside the press box in Coca-Cola Park is a sign — "Pigs to the Bigs" — surrounded by dozens of stars.

Each has upon it the name of a player who has made the leap from the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs to the parent Phillies since Lehigh Valley began operations in 2008 — everyone from outfielder Chris Snelling (April 30, 2008) to pitcher Nick Pivetta (April 29, 2017), the latter of whom has since returned to the IronPigs.

It is a study in the star-crossed, of guys who bounced up and down (Pete Orr, July 8, 2011), guys who flamed out (Domonic Brown, July 28, 2010), guys whose fate is yet to be determined (Maikel Franco, Sept. 3, 2014).

The point being that the path to major-league stardom seldom follows a straight line.

That has been demonstrated once again by the Phillies' top prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford, who spent weeks in bounce-back mode earlier this season.

And now finds himself there again.

His 0-for-4 night in Thursday's 8-4 loss to Indianapolis left him hitless in his last 16 at-bats, his slash line for the season at .175/.291/.221.

Recall that Crawford, the 16th overall pick in the 2013 draft, had exactly four hits in 48 at-bats over his first 14 games of the season, an average of .083.

Never before had the 22-year-old experienced anything like it, and he took a methodical approach to remedying the problem. He did some video work. He tinkered with his stance. He consulted with hitting coach Sal Rende and roving minor-league hitting instructor Andy Tracy. And slowly but surely, he began coming around.

The thinking at that point was that his slump might serve as a valuable lesson, a blessing in disguise.

As Crawford put it hours before Thursday's first pitch, "I'd rather struggle here than if I ever make it to the big leagues, God willing. I'd much rather have it [happen] down here than up there."

Though it will happen there, too. Baseball, everyone always says, is a game of failure. It's just a matter of how each player deals with it, works through it, minimizes it.

Lehigh Valley manager Dusty Wathan has said repeatedly that he was impressed by Crawford's approach to his scuffling start, that he thought the youngster treated it as "a growing opportunity" that can only help him down the line.

It was all Wathan could have hoped for, for Crawford or anybody else.

"I think it's a good thing to be able to have some experience to look back on, later on," he said. "Now, when they're going through it they probably don't think of it that way, but those of us who have been around baseball and been in situations like that personally, too, know that it's going to get better."

Wathan, seated at his office desk in a T-shirt and shorts before Thursday's game, has been around the block. He previously managed Crawford at Double A Reading, and believes those 14 games in April represent a blip.

"We know that J.P.'s a great player," Wathan said. "I think [such struggles] can actually end up being a good thing for these guys."

If Crawford, a native Californian, had few previous failures to draw upon — "He hasn't really had any," Wathan said — he at least had a ready roster of big-time athletes in his family with whom he could commiserate. His dad, Larry, was a CFL defensive back from 1981-89. His cousin, Carl, was a major-league outfielder for 15 years, ending last season. His older sister, Eliza, played softball at Cal State-Fullerton.

Certainly it appears they have kept him grounded, because he is singularly unimpressed by his draft status or ranking with various scouting services.

"I [couldn't] care less about that," he said. "All that doesn't really matter. Once you get on the field, everyone's the same. Everyone's the same player."

Though he was somewhat less than that early on. He was admittedly frustrated, but far from defeated.

"You've got to stay on the positive [side] on everything," he said. "You can't get too down on yourself, or else you're just going to do worse."

Had it been a major-league situation instead of a player-development situation, it is entirely possible that Wathan would have held him out of the lineup a day or two, just to let him clear his head.

"Or maybe not, because he contributes every night, somehow," the manager said.

And as Crawford said, "You're not going to get better sitting. You've got to go out there and play."

He admitted earlier this month that while he had once been reluctant about video study, he found great benefit in it when he was looking for answers in late April.

He decided to raise his hands while at the plate, and the hits began to come. He batted at a .253 clip over 24 games, including a six-game hitting streak, bringing his average to a season-best .196 on May 20.

Now it's back to the drawing board. It is, after all, a game of failure. It's just a matter of dealing with it, working through it, minimizing it.

He has become well-acquainted with the concept.

Howie Kendrick hit by pitch twice, removed from rehab start at Triple A

Howie Kendrick hit by pitch twice, removed from rehab start at Triple A

Howie Kendrick experienced a painful rehab start on Thursday night.

Rehabbing with Triple A Lehigh Valley, Kendrick was hit by a pitch twice before being removed after the sixth inning of the IronPigs' 8-4 loss to Indianapolis at Coca-Cola Park.

Both times Kendrick was plunked in the upper left arm, according to Tom Housenick of the Morning Call.

There was no update on if Kendrick was injured or taken out for precautionary reasons. Thursday marked Kendrick's second rehab start as he recovers from an oblique strain that has sidelined him since April 15.

The Phillies' leftfielder started at third base Thursday. At the beginning of his rehab assignment, Kendrick was expected to play four games and see time at third and first base, as well as in left field.

Kendrick made a throwing error at third on Thursday and finished 0 for 1 with a run scored. In his two games, he's 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.

Kendrick hit .333 with four doubles, a triple and five RBIs in 10 games with the Phillies prior to landing on the DL.

When he returns, he could see time at third base instead of left field if Maikel Franco continues to struggle (see story).