Improving Cesar Hernandez -- 'a really good player' -- leads Phillies' win

Improving Cesar Hernandez -- 'a really good player' -- leads Phillies' win


WASHINGTON -- This is what it looks like when it all goes right for the Phillies.

Well, at least most of it.

The Phils still aren't racking up big totals in the hits and runs column -- that 17-spot last week was pure Halley's Comet stuff -- but they got some timely hits, efficient pitching and excellent defense in beating the Washington Nationals, 4-2, and stopping a four-game losing streak on Saturday (see Instant Replay).

"Well, that was fun for a change," manager Pete Mackanin said after his team's first win since last weekend.

Jeremy Hellickson pitched seven innings of two-run ball and got the win when Cesar Hernandez smacked a tiebreaking, two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning. Hector Neris and Joaquin Benoit protected the lead with Benoit retiring three big Washington bats -- Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman -- to earn his first save of the season. After watching Jeanmar Gomez bob and weave and ultimately get knocked out of the closer role, Mackanin was ready for a peaceful ninth inning and Benoit provided it.

"He's a 14-year veteran," Mackanin said. "He's not scared."

In addition to the strong pitching, the Phils benefitted from several nice defensive plays, two by left fielder Howie Kendrick and one by shortstop Freddy Galvis. Hellickson gave up several long drives, but the Phillies' outfield played air-tight ball.

Hellickson's strong start marked just the second time in 11 games that a Phillies starting pitcher has gone seven innings. The starters averaged just five innings over the first 10 games.

"We finally got seven innings out of a starter," Mackanin said. "That makes it a lot easier."

Hellickson was upset as he left the mound after the seventh inning. He had given up a solo homer to Chris Heisey with one out in that inning and it tied the score at 2-2.

Enter Hernandez.

The Phillies' second baseman had a terrific day. He dropped down a bunt for a base hit to lead off the fourth inning and ignite a two-run rally against Washington's Tanner Roark, who dominated the Phils with 34 innings of three-run ball last season.

The eighth inning began with Hernandez's double-play mate, Freddy Galvis, taking a pitch off the foot from Washington reliever Joe Blanton. Two batters later, Hernandez took a 0-1 fastball that Blanton left over the middle of the plate and drove it out to right to break the tie and give the Phils a two-run lead that the bullpen locked down.

So with a ball that traveled maybe 40 feet and another that traveled 392 feet, Hernandez was the offensive star.

"I can't say enough about Cesar," Mackanin said. "He's been playing hard. He lays down a bunt for a hit then stepped up with the homer. It was huge. He's turned into a really good major league player."

Hernandez's evolution began June 21 of last season when he was benched for three days. At the time, he was hitting .248 with a .293 on-base percentage. The benching woke him up and after returning he hit .327 (13th best in the majors over that span) with a .421 on-base percentage (fifth-best) the rest of the season.

This winter, Hernandez, who turns 27 on May 23, added something valuable to his game. He got in the weight room and added 15 pounds of muscle, taking him to 180 pounds.

He likes the added strength.

"I can hit the ball harder," the switch-hitting second baseman said.

The Phillies have two good second-base prospects in the upper minors in Jesmuel Valentin and Scott Kingery, but Hernandez clearly is not about to give up his job without a fight. Through the first 11 games of the season, he's hitting .313 with three doubles, a triple, two homers and seven RBIs.

Hernandez has yet to attempt a stolen base. He had 17 steals last season but was caught 13 times.

"The one ingredient that he needs work on, and he's been working on it, is getting jumps to steal bases," Mackanin said. "He's got the potential to steal a lot of bases. He's been working on reading slide steps when to go when not to. The other night he was going to attempt to steal but the pitcher put a slide step on so he shut it down. That's a vast improvement. That's not easy to do, but once you do get the hang of it, it makes a difference."

Hernandez sure made a difference Saturday with a leadoff bunt to start a rally and a decisive home run late in the game.

"I was really happy because it got Hellickson the win," Hernandez said. "He threw seven good innings. It gave us a needed win."

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp sit

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp sit

Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, both struggling mightily through the first month of the season, will get Saturday night off when the Phillies take on the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

Joseph is hitting .190 with one homer and 18 strikeouts in 18 games, while Rupp is batting .180 with one homer and 20 strikeouts through 15 games. Last season, Joseph had 21 home runs and Rupp 16.

Brock Stassi will spell Joseph at first base and bat seventh. Andrew Knapp takes over for Rupp behind the plate and will bat eighth.

Daniel Nava also receives a start, playing left field. The first-year Phillie is hitting .346 with a pair of homers and as many walks as strikeouts (seven).

Zach Eflin takes the mound in a meaningful start for the right-hander (see story). He opposes resurgent Dodgers righty Brandon McCarthy (see game notes).

Here are tonight's lineups:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Daniel Nava, LF
7. Brock Stassi, 1B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Zach Eflin, P

1. Andrew Toles, CF
2. Corey Seager, SS
3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
4. Yasmani Grandal, C
5. Yasiel Puig, RF
6. Cody Bellinger, LF
7. Chase Utley, 2B
8. Chris Taylor, 3B
9. Brandon McCarthy, P

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.