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.

MLB Notes: Nationals ace Max Scherzer scratched with sore neck

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MLB Notes: Nationals ace Max Scherzer scratched with sore neck

SAN DIEGO -- Max Scherzer was scratched from his scheduled start Friday night due to a sore neck and the Washington Nationals turned to left-hander Matt Grace to face the San Diego Padres.

Manager Dusty Baker announced the move about two hours before first pitch.

Scherzer was coming off a 10-strikeout performance against San Francisco.

Grace is 1-0 with a 4.46 ERA. He grew up in the Los Angeles area and played at UCLA.

Scherzer is 12-5 with a 2.25 ERA this season.

Cubs: Lester placed on 10-day DL
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs got an encouraging report on Jon Lester before placing the ace left-hander on the 10-day disabled list on Friday.

Lester was examined by team physician Dr. Stephen Gryzlo after he left Chicago's 13-10 loss to Cincinnati on Thursday in the second inning. He was diagnosed with tightness in his left lat and general shoulder fatigue, but his shoulder and side were deemed structurally sound.

"I think the big thing is just the overall performance was not there," Lester said. "This is something that we tried to manage and get through. It just got to a point where you're doing a disservice to your team by going out there and not being able to perform.

"You feel like you can't help (going on the DL), but at the same time I wasn't helping out there. Let's get this thing right and get back to being myself" (see full story).

Dodgers: Gonzalez activated from DL
DETROIT -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have activated first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the disabled list, and he's set to start Friday night against Detroit.

The 35-year-old Gonzalez has missed over two months because of a herniated lumbar disk. He last played for the Dodgers on June 11.

Gonzalez went 6 for 31 with a home run and six RBIs during a nine-game rehab assignment with Class A Rancho Cucamonga and Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera out 4th straight game; DL stint coming?

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CSN

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera out 4th straight game; DL stint coming?

Odubel Herrera to the disabled list is looking more and more likely.

Herrera, nursing a left hamstring injury, is out of the lineup Friday night for a fourth straight game as the Phillies play Game 2 of their four-game series against the Giants at AT&T Park.

Well before Friday's game, the centerfielder tested his hamstring on the field with an athletic trainer and walked off in not-so-promising fashion, according to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury.

At this point, the Phillies are contemplating a DL stint for their hottest hitter.

"It's a day-to-day thing," manager Pete Mackanin said Thursday. "He might be going on the DL. We're thinking about it."

The team is awaiting word from its medical staff on that decision, Mackanin said.

Herrera has hit safely in 17 straight games, a stretch in which he's slashing .379/.431/.636 with three homers, two triples, four doubles and 10 RBIs.

Nick Williams will make his fourth straight start in center field. Cameron Perkins will get the nod in right field and hit eighth, while Jorge Alfaro is slotted behind the plate to catch Zach Eflin and bat seventh.

Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph are in the fifth and sixth spots, respectively. Both are struggling mightily. Franco is hitting .190 in August with one homer, 11 strikeouts and no walks, while Joseph is 5 for his last 52 (.096) with just one extra-base hit (a double) over that span.

Eflin opposes Giants left-hander Matt Moore. For more on the game, read Corey Seidman's game notes right here (see story).

Here are the lineups:

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, CF
4. Rhys Hoskins, LF
5. Maikel Franco, 3B
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Jorge Alfaro, C
8. Cameron Perkins, RF
9. Zach Eflin, P

Giants
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Hunter Pence, RF
3. Jarrett Park, LF
4. Buster Posey, C
5. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
6. Brandon Crawford, SS
7. Ryder Jones, 1B
8. Kelby Tomlinson, 2B
9. Matt Moore, P