Jake Diekman looks to chew up hitters in 2014

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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.

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies have completed the signing of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $7.5 million contract (see story). The deal could be announced Tuesday and will require the club removing a player from the already-full 40-man roster.

Benoit is one of three additions that the Phils have made to their bullpen this offseason — the club traded for veteran right-hander Pat Neshek and picked up lefty David Rollins on waivers — and more will likely come, probably on minor-league contracts, before the team reports to spring training.

Now that the bullpen has been addressed, let’s take a look at what could be next for the Phillies this winter.

• The addition of Benoit could create enough back-end bullpen depth that GM Matt Klentak could look to trade either Jeanmar Gomez or Hector Neris. Gomez saved 37 games in 2016, but struggled down the stretch. Neris showed great promise in recording a 2.58 ERA and striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings in 79 games in 2016. The hard-throwing righty is young (27), talented and inexpensive so the Phils would have to be overwhelmed by an offer to move him. Last year, Klentak moved a young closer in Ken Giles for a significant return from Houston, so he has history in making these types of moves.

• In addition to more potential comings and goings in the bullpen, the Phils will look to add a backup infielder and maybe a backup catcher in the coming weeks. Andres Blanco could return as that extra infielder. A.J. Ellis could return as the catcher. But nothing is firm. In fact, Klentak hinted Monday that he’d be comfortable bringing Andrew Knapp up from Triple A to be the backup catcher next season.

“I don’t think we need a veteran backup catcher,” Klentak said. “If it works out, we’re open-minded to that. But Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A. He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and (Jorge) Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

• One of the biggest remaining issues facing Phillies management this winter centers around the outfield and the offense. Basically, Klentak and his advisers are weighing the merits of adding another veteran hitter — the club already traded for Howie Kendrick — to improve the offense or giving a significant playing opportunity to a promising youngster and potential future core piece such as Roman Quinn in what currently projects to be one opening in the outfield.

“That topic is the one that we have spent the most time discussing, not just here but this offseason, about striking the right balance between adding a veteran bat or veteran free agent to this team to make our team better, but again, not taking playing time away from players that need the playing time.

“That’s part of the dynamic that we have to consider there. Roman Quinn came up at the end of the year and, at times, looked like a legitimate major-league contributor. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that he hasn’t logged a single at-bat at Triple A yet.

“This doesn’t have an obvious answer. We are continuing to talk about trade acquisitions and talk to agents for free agents to see if the right opportunity exists to blend all those factors together. But what we do not want to do is bring in so many veterans that we are denying opportunities to our young players.”

This brings us to a situation that could potentially satisfy the team’s desire to improve the offense without taking away a playing opportunity from Quinn.

J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers is an outfield bat that the Phillies like. They like his production and the fact that he’s signed for just 2017. In other words, he wouldn’t block a young prospect’s pathway to the majors, at least for long.

Martinez, owed $11.75 million, which is very affordable for the Phillies, is a serious trade candidate for the cost-cutting Tigers and the Phillies have spoken to Tigers officials, dating to the early part of the offseason.

According to sources, the Phillies and Tigers could be a trade fit if the Tigers were to deal second baseman Ian Kinsler. If the Tigers move Kinsler, they could look to move Martinez to the Phillies for second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Phillies officials have said they are in no hurry to deal Hernandez, but the team does have depth at second with a pair of prospects (Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin) on the way and a ready-made stopgap in Kendrick at the position. 

So keep an eye on Kinsler. If he moves, the Phillies could pursue the veteran bat that would make their offense better. And it would not cost Quinn an opportunity as he could play left field with Kendrick moving to second.

Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens honored with Joe Bauman Award

Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens honored with Joe Bauman Award

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens stopped by the winter meetings on Monday and left with a little something extra in his wallet.

Cozens was honored with the Joe Bauman Award, given annually to minor league baseball’s home run king. The award came with an $8,000 check — $200 for each homer he hit in 2016.

“That will make shopping this holiday season a lot easier,” Cozens joked.

Cozens, a left-handed-hitting rightfielder, hit .276 with 40 home runs and 125 RBIs for the Double A Reading Fightin Phils. He was named Eastern League MVP. During his acceptance speech at Monday’s awards luncheon, Cozens thanked his Reading teammate, first baseman Rhys Hoskins, for pushing him to his power heights. Hoskins also had a huge season with the bat. He hit 38 homers and had 116 RBIs on his way to becoming the Eastern League’s Rookie of the Year. Night after night in Reading, Cozens and Hoskins staged a friendly power competition. At the end of the season, they shared the Paul Owens Award, given annually to the Phillies’ minor-league player of the year.

Cozens, 22, recently finished a 25-game hitch in the Dominican winter league. Despite hitting just .165 for the Aguilas club, he had four home runs — all against lefty pitching, which has been a nemesis.

Cozens, a 6-6, 250-pound behemoth, made some off-the-field news in the DR when he was involved in a pregame fight with teammate Boog Powell, a Seattle Mariners prospect. Cozens downplayed the incident.

“Just a little boys-being-boys type thing,” he said. “I feel like it was blown out of proportion like almost everything is these days. But, after it happened we became good friends. It was more the level of respect there and I’d say we’re still friends, so it’s good.”

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said the incident was in the past and would have no long-range ramifications for Cozens.

“There is no concern,” Klentak said. “Dylan is an intense kid and he plays the game really hard. That is a good thing. If you’ve watched that, you can see that in his at-bats and when he runs the bases and is running around in the outfield. That’s just his style of play. That aggressive nature at times can boil over. You hope that it doesn’t boil over into altercations with teammates. But we have no long-term concerns with that at all.”

Cozens was recently added to the 40-man roster and will be in big-league spring training camp. Though he projects to open the 2017 season at Triple A, he’s conceding nothing.

“I’m just going to go out there and try to get better, turn some heads and make people notice and hopefully get called up as soon as possible,” he said. 

Plate discipline and strike-zone management are the areas in which Cozens needs the most improvement. He struck out 186 times and walked 61 times in 134 games in 2016. Phillies officials would like to see the strikeouts come down.
 
“I’m learning how to take my walks more often, having better strike-zone judgment, maybe not chase after as many pitches,” Cozens said. “I want to be aggressive, but if they don’t want to pitch to me, just take a walk. I feel like I did not do a good job of that and it’s something I can improve on next year.”