Hamels struggles in Phillies' opening-day defeat

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Hamels struggles in Phillies' opening-day defeat

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ATLANTA -- It’s now safe to say there’s something about the first start of a season that just doesn’t sit right with Cole Hamels.

The 29-year-old lefty made his first career opening-day start on Monday night and it was not a good one. After a brilliant spring training in which he allowed just two earned runs and did not give up a homer in 19 innings, he was pounded by the Atlanta Braves in a 7-5 loss at Turner Field (see Instant Replay).

Hamels gave up seven hits and five runs in five innings. Five of the seven hits he allowed were for extra bases and three were homers -- booming homers -- accounting for four runs.

In his last five season debuts, Hamels has allowed 23 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings (9.55 ERA).

What gives?

“I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t want to (pitch poorly). You want to be able to pitch your best. It’s not like I go out there and try to lose.

“I try to win every game and get the team headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that.

“I have to bear down in my next start and execute pitch after pitch after pitch.”

Can Hamels do that?

Of course, he can. After losing his debut to Miami last season, he won 10 of his next 12 decisions, including eight in a row.

Pitch execution was Hamels’ downfall on this night. He made a number of mistakes over the heart of the plate and paid for them.

“He wasn’t as sharp as he usually is,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “He had trouble getting the ball out of the big part of the plate. At the same time, you have to give (the Braves) credit. They hit some balls hard.”

In the first inning, Hamels walked Jason Heyward with one out and then allowed a cannonading two-run homer to right to Freddie Freeman on a 2-1 fastball down the middle.

The home run brought the huge crowd of 51,456 to its feet. The crowd was loud and spirited all night and it definitely gave the Braves a lift.

In the second inning, Hamels grooved a 3-0 fastball to the first hitter, Dan Uggla, and he drove it out to left as the Braves took a 3-0 lead.

Hamels was surprised that Uggla had the green light.

“A little bit,” he said. “But if I make the right pitch then he rolls over on it and he looks bad. But unfortunately I guess I look bad in that case.”

Hamels gave up a double and an RBI single in the third and a solo homer to newcomer Justin Upton on a 1-2 cutter in the fifth.

Upton’s homer came after the Phils had made it a 4-3 game and chased Atlanta starter Tim Hudson in the fifth. Chase Utley’s two-run single was the big hit in the inning. The Phils had a chance to keep pouring it on after Hudson left, but lefty reliever Luis Avilan struck out Ryan Howard with two men in scoring position. Avilan then walked Michael Young intentionally before getting Domonic Brown on a ground ball to preserve the lead.

Atlanta cushioned its lead with two runs off Chad Durbin in the sixth. Durbin did not retire any of the three batters he faced.

“Every time we got close they pulled away and we couldn’t catch them,” Manuel said.

“We had opportunities to tie the game and we didn’t get the big hit,” Utley said. “The Braves are a good team. They have some power in their lineup and they showed it tonight.”

Playing for the first time on opening day since 2010, Utley was a bright spot in defeat. He had three hits, including his 200th career homer, and a triple, and drove in three runs.

“I’ve worked hard to get to this point,” said Utley, who constantly battles a degenerative knee condition to get on the field.

Another bright spot: Ben Revere’s magnificent 11-pitch at-bat, which helped wear down Hudson in the fifth. Revere batted leadoff (see story). He singled, walked and scored a run.

And so opening day is over. The Phillies are 0-1 with a day off Tuesday and Roy Halladay, coming off a shaky spring, on the mound Wednesday night.

“Obviously you want to win the first game,” Utley said. “But I think we have a few more to go. We’ll try to learn from this one and move on.”

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.