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

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

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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."

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whit Merrifield hit a two-run, two-out double that capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning, and the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since April.

With their 10th win in 12 games, the Royals improved to 36-36. They were 6-6 before play on April 20, then went on a nine-game losing streak that night and dropped as low as 10-20, seven games out of first place. They trail AL Central-leading Cleveland by three games.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and extended it when Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak hit RBI singles off Joakim Soria (4-2) (see full recap).

Dodgers cruise past Rockies for 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig homered and left-hander Alex Wood kept his record perfect as the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the NL West rival Colorado Rockies 6-1 on Friday night for their eighth consecutive victory.

The Dodgers have won 14 of their last 15 games. They have scored at least six runs in seven consecutive games.

Wood (8-0) allowed one run in six innings. He gave up only three hits and walked two, retiring his last 10 batters.

The Dodgers have homered in 15 consecutive games, tied for fourth-longest streak in club history. The last time they managed it was in 1977. Their record is 24 consecutive games with a home run.

Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeman (8-4) allowed five runs and a career-high 10 hits and three walks in six innings (see full recap).

Torreyes hits walk-off single to lift Yanks over Rangers
NEW YORK -- Ronald Torreyes hit a game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning after midnight, and the New York Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1 on a rainy Friday night for just their second win in 10 games.

Brett Gardner lined a tying home run with one out in the New York ninth off closer Matt Bush. After Chasen Shreve (2-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Torreyes kept the Yankees atop the AL East.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka kept it scoreless into the late innings in the first major league meeting between the Japanese stars (see full recap).

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

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PHOENIX -- The clubhouse was beginning to clear and still the star of the game had not yet emerged from the shower.

"He's in there cleaning the guacamole and mayo out of his hair," Cameron Rupp said with a laugh.

Eventually Mark Leiter Jr. made it out of the shower and over to his locker where equipment man Phil Sheridan presented him with three game balls, souvenirs from not only his first big-league start but his first big-league win, as well.

"It's something I'll never forget," the 26-year-old right-hander from Toms River, N.J., said pitching six shutout innings to backbone the Phillies' 6-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Friday night (see Instant Replay).

"I’ll be honest, I was probably more excited for this than I was for my major-league debut. To go out there and contribute to a win is what I was hoping to do."

Leiter, a 22nd-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2013, had never made it onto the 40-man roster until the Phils needed a reliever in mid-April and gave him a shot after he'd gotten off to a good start at Triple A. He spent six weeks in the majors and made 12 relief appearances before being sent back to Triple A the first weekend of June.

Leiter worked as a starter during his time back at Triple A. He pitched six shutout innings against Syracuse in his last start and got the call to come back up when Jerad Eickhoff went on the disabled list with a back strain earlier this week.

Leiter's return assignment was not easy: The Diamondbacks are one of the best hitting clubs in the majors and the best on their home turf. They entered the game scoring 6.48 runs per game at home and with an .886 OPS, both major-league bests.

None of that fazed Leiter.

"In my opinion, this is the big leagues and it doesn’t matter who the lineup is," he said. "They all have the ability to hit and hit well. They’re all big-leaguers and they've earned their right to be big-leaguers. I was just trying to pitch to the team you're facing that day."

Leiter trusted his low-90s fastball and commanded it well. He mixed in his secondary stuff and kept the D-backs off-balance with his splitter. He scattered three hits, walked one and struck out five. He showed no fear.

"Great performance," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He made it look easy. He made a lot of good hitters look bad with his split. For him to come up and do that to a real good hitting team was outstanding."

Leiter's dad, Mark Sr., pitched for the Phillies in 1997 and 1998. He made the trip in from New Jersey to watch his son's first big-league start.

"I guess they found him on TV," Leiter said. "That's what they were telling me. I'm sure he wasn't too pleased they found him because he was probably stressed out. But I think it was probably worth him coming out here. He's probably happy."

How could he not be?

Leiter's teammates were definitely happy.

They treated Leiter to a raucous postgame dousing that included as many different condiments as could be found in the clubhouse dining room. One laughing player had a bottle of ketchup in his hands. Another had a squeeze bottle of honey.

And then there was the guacamole and mayo that Rupp mentioned.

"In his first major-league start, to come up here and do that in what is known as a good hitters’ park - that proves Mark is pretty strong between the ears," Tommy Joseph said. "He's been one of those under-the-radar guys that people have doubted, but his mentality and ability to prepare are second to none."

Joseph played a big role in the win, smacking a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Phillies some breathing room. Maikel Franco also had a big home run and Freddy Galvis contributed an important triple that led to a Phillies' run in the first inning.

The Phils still have the worst record in the majors at 24-48, but they've won two in a row, both on the back of good starting pitching performances. Aaron Nola pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Thursday.

And Leiter delivered on Friday.

"It's good to see those back-to-back," Mackanin said.