Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

usa-jakediekman-phillies-slideshow.jpg

Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Phillies reliever Jake Diekman used a performance-enhancing substance in 2013.

Relax. It was completely legal.

“This is the stuff,” Diekman said.

He pointed to a box of Dubble Bubble chewing gum that was sitting on a table in the Phillies’ spring-training clubhouse.

“I can’t chew anything else,” he said. “I grab about 20 pieces and stuff them in my pocket before going to the bullpen.”

In the dark season of 2013, Diekman was a bright spot. The hard-throwing lefty sidearmer developed the four Cs of relief pitching -- composure, control, confidence and cojones -- and is on everyone’s list of potential difference makers as the Phillies look to end a two-year playoff drought and get back to the postseason in 2014.

It seems as if every successful big-leaguer can point to a time in his career when everything began to click. For Diekman, the click happened Aug. 19 when he channeled the anger caused by a blown umpiring call into a 99-mph fastball and a game-saving strikeout.

Diekman, 27, believes he was able to harness his emotion that night because the game stopped moving in fast-forward for him last season.

He credits his performance-enhancing substance for that.

Last spring training, Diekman began chewing bubble gum when he pitched. He got away from it for a while then started doing it again during side work at Lehigh Valley.

Over time, he realized something. His focus and concentration improved when he chewed gum. Everything seemed to slow down and become more manageable. He was still in the high-speed lane of major-league baseball, but no longer did it feel as if everything was whizzing past him.

“For some reason, it makes me think less,” Diekman said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”

Though not scientifically proven, there are theories that suggest chewing gum can increase oxygen to the brain and therefore improve alertness and concentration.

Diekman is a believer.

“I don’t get super sped-up anymore,” he said. “Now it feels weird if I don’t pitch with gum. I threw my first bullpen here this spring without it and I was lost.”

While Phillies officials will gladly provide Diekman with all the bubble gum he needs if it means he pitches well, the biggest reason the game slowed down for him last season can be boiled down to one word.

Experience.

Diekman pitched in 32 games in 2012, his rookie season, and 29 more last season before he heard the click on Aug. 19. He had just come into a one-run game in the eighth inning against Colorado at Citizens Bank Park. There were two outs and runners on first and second when umpire Jim Joyce called Diekman for a balk. The next day, Joyce told Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg that he was wrong to have called the balk. But that didn’t help Diekman at the time. The balk call put runners at second and third with the game on the line.

Seething inside, Diekman turned his fury into a weapon. He blew a 99-mph fastball by Nolan Arenado to end the Rockies’ threat and help propel the Phillies to a win.

“I got (ticked) off,” Diekman said. “A base hit would have lost us the lead. I just said to myself, ‘Go right at him. Attack the hitter.’

“When you first get called up to the big leagues, you have to know you’re here for a reason. You have to believe that you can pitch here. That was the turning point for me. After the balk, I felt like, ‘I can pitch up here.’ I felt like I pitched with fire after that.”

Fire and bubble gum.

After the balk game, Diekman made 15 more appearances out of the bullpen for the Phillies last season. In 14 innings, he allowed just six hits and one run. He struck out 17 and walked four.

That finish is a big reason Phillies officials believe Diekman can be a force this season.

Of course, Diekman would not even be here if it weren’t for a stab-in-the-dark delivery change suggested by minor-league pitching coach Bob Milacki in the summer of 2009. At the time, Diekman was in low Single A ball. He threw straight over the top and was pretty much headed nowhere. During a bullpen session, Milacki suggested Diekman try throwing sidearm. The pitcher was put on the disabled list so he could practice the new delivery.

“I got put on the phantom DL to work on it,” he said. “It was the worst experience of my life. Shin contusion. I had to fake being hurt for two weeks and it sucked.”

Turns out the worst experience of Diekman’s life changed his life. For the better. The new arm angle added deception to his delivery and velocity to his fastball. He went from the low 90s on the radar gun to the high 90s. His career took off.

“I’d be home somewhere if I didn’t make the change,” he said.

Along with his blazing fastball, Diekman has a power slider and he’s working hard on his changeup this spring. It’s not difficult to envision Diekman closing games somewhere down the road. He certainly has the stuff. But for now, he will be asked to get important outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

“It doesn’t matter what they ask me to do,” Diekman said. “I just want to pitch.”

And when he does, you can be sure he’ll be chewing bubble gum.

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph starts for 1st time against Gio Gonzalez

lineup.jpg

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph starts for 1st time against Gio Gonzalez

Tommy Joseph is back in the starting lineup … as he's expected to be for most of the final month of the season. Joseph bats fourth behind third baseman Maikel Franco.

Joseph did not start Tuesday night in the Phillies' 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals. The 25-year-old is hitting .251 with 17 home runs and 34 RBIs.

The slugger has a significantly higher average against left-handed pitching than righties, despite clubbing 12 of his 17 homers against right-handed pitchers.

Joseph has yet to faced Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez.

In other lineup notes, Tyler Goeddel gets the start in left field and will hit eighth, while A.J. Ellis gets his second start as a Phillie. He'll catch Adam Morgan.

Here is the full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, RF
6. Freddy Galvis, SS
7. A.J. Ellis, C
8. Tyler Goeddel, LF
9. Adam Morgan, P

For more on tonight's game, read Steven Tydings' game notes.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies (60-72) vs. Nationals (77-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

For the second time in less than a week, the Phillies try to avoid a sweep by winning the final game of a series against a division opponent. Adam Morgan will try to overcome the Phillies' struggles as well as his own, while the Nationals toss out veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez (see tonight's lineup)

Here are five things to know for Wednesday night.

1. Close to quality
For just the fifth time this year, Morgan put together a quality start for the Phillies on Aug. 19 against the Cardinals. In his follow up outing against the Mets on Friday, he came quite close to another one.

If it wasn't obvious from his 1-8 record and his 6.50 ERA, Morgan has been absymal this season. He's shown glimpses of his talent, such as his strong start against the Cards or his seven innings of one-run ball on May 10 in Atlanta. Yet for the most part, his outings have been filled with hits and home runs.

Back to Friday. He had gotten through the Mets' lineup with just two runs in five innings, keeping the Phillies in the game while Bartolo Colon held them at bay. But a grand slam ended his night and gave him an ugly six-run, eight-hit line in five innings of play. While he tied a career-high with eight strikeouts, he allowed three home runs. That simply won't get it done.

In his final start of the month, he needs to put together a strong outing to prove he's worthy of a rotation spot even after rosters expand in September. If he keeps allowing more runs than innings pitched, it'd be tough to keep handing him the ball.

2. Lefty in decline
In the first two games of the series, the Phillies saw two starters that they will see plenty of in the future: Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer. Now they face a man who headed their rotations of the past.

Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals in 2012 for his age-26 season after becoming an All Star for the first time. Not only did he come up with another All Star appearance in 2012, he won a league-high 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote.

However, that was Gonzalez's peak. His ERA has declined every season since 2012 and he no longer strikes out more than a batter an inning. When he was truly at his best, he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark at a very solid rate (0.4 home runs per nine innings in 2012). He was able to match that mark in 2015, but he's given up his most home runs per nine innings (1.0) since his rookie season in 2009. 

The bad news for the Phillies is Gonzalez has a solid track record against them. He's 8-6 in 18 starts against them with a 2.82 ERA. He strikes out almost exactly a batter an inning in those games while not walking as many batters as he usually does. He's even better at Citizens Bank with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts. 

Despite giving up just two earned runs over 13⅓ innings against the Phillies in April, he did not earn a win in his two starts. In fact, he lost his second start against them while the Nationals lost both games. 

3. Outperforming expectations
The Phillies are nowhere close to their 14-10 start, but that was to be expected. Very few thought the Phils could begin the season on such a strong run, which lasted into mid-May. 

Right now, they have a 60-72 record. However, their pythagorean record (which uses their runs scored and runs allowed to project what their record should be) is 51-81, nine games worse. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals are 77-55, comfortably in first place in the NL East. But their pythagorean record is 81-51, four games better than their current pace. 

There are plenty of reasons why teams can outperform or underperform compared to their pythagorean record. A team that outperforms can have a series of blowout wins that inflate their runs scored despite a 10-run outburst only contributes to one win. Teams that underperform tend to have lot of success in close games (or have suffered a few blowout losses), yet they also usually regress and start playing more toward their projected record.

The easiest way to explain why the Phillies and Nationals would have the out or underperformed is their bullpens. The Phils have had a strong backend of their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris, who have been able to close out many close Phillies wins. Meanwhile, the Nationals had Jonathan Papelbon closing for them. Papelbon had a poor enough season to be designated for assignment after blowing a few games this summer. 

The other reasons are the ones listed above: the Nationals' offense has produced some big outbursts thanks to hitters like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and the Phillies have had some blowout losses (that Mets series last week was a great example). 

However, the main takeaway from this may be the surplus wins the Phillies have produced thanks to their bullpen. Without Neris or Gomez, the team would not be where they are because close leads wouldn't have been as safe as they've been. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With the news that Ryan Howard will be getting less playing time, Tommy Joseph is the man who will benefit. He takes on a lefty tonight, although he hasn't faced Gonzalez before because he was not in the majors in April.

Nationals: Despite going 0 for 4 on Tuesday, former Phillie Jayson Werth has been on a tear this month. He's hit seven home runs, including one Monday. He also has a .346 average against lefties.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 1-7 against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this year. That includes a sweep by the Nationals from May 30-June 1, the first sweep by the Nationals at CBP since Sept. 20-22, 2011 (a four-game series).

• Freddy Galvis has the most at-bats of any current Phillie against Gonzalez. He's 8 for 31 with a home run, two doubles and a walk.

• Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa is 2 for 6 against Morgan with two home runs. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBIs. 

• The Phillies are 12-13 in August despite have allowed 150 runs and scored just 111. The Nationals are 16-11 this month. 

Best of MLB: Curtis Granderson homers twice off bench in Mets' win

Best of MLB: Curtis Granderson homers twice off bench in Mets' win

NEW YORK -- Curtis Granderson came off the bench and homered twice, Jose Reyes had four hits and the surging New York Mets beat the Miami Marlins 7-4 on Tuesday night.

Asdrubal Cabrera extended his recent tear at the plate, hitting a two-run homer in his return to the lineup after missing one start due to a sore left knee. Rookie right-hander Seth Lugo (2-2) gave up two runs in the first inning but recovered nicely as the Mets won for the eighth time in 10 games.

By winning the first two games of the four-game series, New York (68-64) moved ahead of slumping Miami for second place in the NL East. Both teams began the day 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card (see full recap).

Cardinals edge Brewers in 10 innings
MILWAUKEE -- Zach Duke stranded the bases loaded with a strikeout in the 10th inning after Randal Grichuk hit an RBI single in the top half of the inning, lifting the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 on Tuesday night.

Seung Hwan Oh (4-2) pitched out of a jam in the ninth to get the win. Duke got his first save with the Cardinals by striking out pinch-hitter Manny Pina after Matt Bowman walked three batters.

The Cardinals' Jhonny Peralta led off the 10th with a single off Corey Knebel (0-2) and moved to third on Yadier Molina's ground-rule double. Jeremy Hazelbaker, who pinch ran for Peralta, scored the winning run on Grichuk's flare to right.

St. Louis' Adam Wainwright and Milwaukee's Wily Peralta dueled for seven innings, leaving a 1-1 game for the bullpens (see full recap).

Wieters lifts Orioles over Blue Jays
BALTIMORE -- Matt Wieters hit a go-ahead, two-run homer off Jason Grilli in the eighth inning to lead the Baltimore Orioles to a 5-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night.

The Orioles pulled within three games of the first-place Blue Jays, who had a four-game winning streak snapped. After losing the opener 5-1, the Orioles will look to gain more ground in the series finale Wednesday.

Michael Saunders drilled a two-run shot off Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez that tied the game 3-3 in the seventh.

In the eighth, Jonathan Schoop walked and Wieters homered off Grilli (4-2), his 12th of the season.

Brad Brach (8-2) picked up the win with 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Zach Britton got his league-leading 39th save (see full recap).