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 manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just pitch.
 
Don’t worry about the role.
 
Just pitch.
 
That’s Adam Morgan’s mindset this spring.
 
“I’m just trying to show whoever needs to see it that I can be an asset to this team,” the left-hander said after his spring debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday (see story). “I’m just keeping it simple that way. I’m not trying to go out for that fifth (starting) spot. If the fifth spot opens up, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want to put me in the bullpen, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want me to be the backup catcher, I’ll be the backup catcher.”
 
The Phillies have plenty of candidates for backup catcher.
 
And the top five spots in their starting rotation, barring an unforeseen development, are accounted for.
 
But there is a way for Morgan to make this team.
 
“He’s definitely a bullpen candidate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to have two lefties in what likely will be a seven-man bullpen. It might not work out that way, but that would be Mackanin’s preference.
 
Morgan is one of what appears to be four candidates along with Joely Rodriguez, Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett. Ramos and Burnett are experienced major-league veterans in camp on minor-league contracts. Rodriguez is the only pure lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Morgan, of course, is on the 40-man roster, but he’s mainly been a starter in his career.

There’s a long way to go in spring training and it would not be surprising to see general manager Matt Klentak add to the list of lefty relief candidates with some type of pickup before the end of camp.
 
But for now, it’s just these four.
 
Morgan, who turns 27 on Monday, started and pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday and will likely continue to have his innings stretched out throughout the Grapefruit League season, just in case he’s needed as a starter.

Ramos and Rodriguez both pitched an inning Saturday. Ramos allowed a hit and a run. Rodriguez had a clean inning. Burnett was tagged for two hits and two runs on Friday.
 
Morgan made 21 starts for the Phillies last season. He also made two relief appearances and finished the season with a 6.04 ERA. He was sent to Triple A in July and returned in mid-August. He made nine starts after returning and pitched at least six innings and gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of them.
 
During his time in Triple A, Morgan started throwing a two-seam fastball or sinker. He’s continued to throw it this spring and believes it will help him.
 
“I learned to trust the two-seamer last year and that’s what I hope to keep moving forward with,” he said.
 
Will it take him to the Phillies’ bullpen?
 
He hopes so. He got a taste of relieving last season and liked it.
 
“Oh, yeah, I loved it,” he said. “Every time the phone rang down there, I was on high alert. It was awesome. It’s a rush.
 
“But wherever I land, I land. I’d be willing to play anywhere on this team.”

Phillies 6, Yankees 5: Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, Brock Stassi shine with bats

Phillies 6, Yankees 5: Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, Brock Stassi shine with bats

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Pete Mackanin assembled what will probably end up being his opening day lineup for Saturday’s spring home opener against the Yankees.

He liked what he saw.

Especially from cleanup man Maikel Franco.

Franco’s big challenge in becoming a more complete player is to improve his selectivity at the plate. The 24-year-old third baseman looked pretty good in that area in three at-bats.

Franco fell behind 0-2 in his first at-bat then battled back to a full count before popping out in the second inning.

He smacked a homer to left on a 2-2 slider in the fourth and then in the sixth, he stroked a first-pitch gapper to left-center that went for an inside-the-park homer. The ball got stuck under the padding on the outfield wall and the umpire did not rule it a ground-rule double.

“Hey, you see my speed?” the not-so-fleet-footed Franco said with a laugh after coming out of the game. “It’s like Cesar’s (Hernandez) speed.”

Mackanin liked the totality of Franco’s at-bats, not just the results.

“He had two long, deep-count at-bats,” Mackanin said. “He worked the count deep and that was good to see.”

There are many miles to go before opening day, and Franco still has many miles to cover before he’s the complete player he wants to be and the selective hitter the front office wants to build around.

Franco vowed to keep working on it under new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

“He told me my focus should be when I stay to the middle of the field, I'll have a lot of success,” Franco said. “I am trying to work on it and put focus on it. I talked to (Howie) Kendrick about hitting and he's helped me. I'm going to stay on it every single day. I'm trying to do my job, trying to do the best I can.

“When I stay in the middle, when I try to hit the ball up the middle, something is going to happen. That's what I want to do, what I want to keep doing.”

Franco hit .255 with 25 homers and 88 RBIs last season, but his on-base percentage was just .306.

He was asked whether he had any personal goals for the season.

“The first thing is to try to be healthy,” he said. “I just want to play in 162 games. Other than that, I'll just do everything I can do.

“Every single day I want to do my best and not try to force the situation. I think I can do better than last year. This year should be very good and much better than last year.”

The game 
The Phillies won it, 6-5, on a walk-off RBI single by Brock Stassi in the bottom of the ninth inning. The hit scored Rhys Hoskins, who had doubled. Hoskins drove a homer to deep center earlier in the game.

Hoskins, who turns 24 in March, has 55 homers and 206 RBIs the last two seasons. He will move to Triple A this season and play first base.

Stassi is a candidate to win a job on the bench (see story). He hasn’t hurt himself in the first two games. He homered Friday and had the game-winning hit Saturday.

“I’m feeling pretty good early on,” he said. “Gotta keep it going.”

Pitching in
Adam Morgan pitched two scoreless innings. Prospect Ricardo Pinto pitched a scoreless inning. It’s not out of the question that he transitions to the bullpen at some point this season.

Mark Appel showed his big stuff with three strikeouts in two innings of work, but his control problems also surfaced as he threw a wild pitch that resulted in two runs.

Up next
Probable opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson makes his spring debut Sunday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin.

Here is the Phillies’ posted lineup for that game:

1. Cameron Perkins CF
2. J.P. Crawford SS
3. Daniel Nava LF
4. Cameron Rupp DH 
5. Andres Blanco 2B
6. Dylan Cozens RF
7. Ryan Hanigan C
8. Brock Stassi 1B
9. Taylor Featherston 3B

Right-hander Joe Biagini will start for Toronto.

Jerad Eickhoff will start for the Phillies against Tampa Bay on Monday. Clay Buchholz will start against Baltimore on Tuesday. Both of those games are in Clearwater.