Lee blanks Marlins as Phillies pull to within game of .500

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Lee blanks Marlins as Phillies pull to within game of .500

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MIAMI -- For all the frustration (completely justified, by the way) caused by the offense and all the worry spawned by a recent spate of injuries, the Phillies have won seven of their last 10 ballgames to pull within a game of .500.

They got to that mark for the first time since April 15 with a Cliff Lee-led, 3-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

“If you’re going to win the division you’re going to have to get past .500,” Lee said after firing the 12th shutout of his career. “Obviously we aren’t there yet, but we have to get past that to get where we want to go.

“Right now, we’re playing good, well-rounded baseball.”

Over the last couple of weeks, the aging Phillies have lost Roy Halladay, Carlos Ruiz and Mike Adams to the disabled list. Chase Utley, who has missed two straight games with a rib cage injury, could be next (see story).

And yet, the Phillies are winning. It hasn’t been all that pretty given the sporadic offense, but they’re keeping their noses above water.

“That just says we’ve got guys that can fill these holes,” Lee said. “The Halladay thing, I feel like he was hurt for a while and just tried to grind through it and we finally decided to do something about it. That was tough, but you can’t go out there and pitch when you’re not all the way there. The Chase thing was kind of a surprise. Hopefully that’s not a major deal and he’s back to help us out. Chooch same thing.

“Fortunately, we have [Erik] Kratz and [Humberto] Quintero and Freddy [Galvis] and [Jonathan] Pettibone and [Tyler] Cloyd and guys like that who can come in and fill those holes and give us a chance.”

The Phillies received excellent starting pitching in the three-game series against the Marlins.

Cole Hamels, Cloyd and Lee combined to pitch 22 innings and allow just four runs while walking four and striking out 20 against the weakest offensive team in the NL. Lee’s shutout was the ninth sustained by the Marlins this season.

Of course, the Phils only won two of the games in Miami because the offense flopped again behind Hamels. It came alive Tuesday and Wednesday with a combined 27 hits.

“As good as our starting pitching has been, we only need a few runs,” Delmon Young said. “If our pitching wasn’t what it has been, we’d really have a bad record.”

Young was a big contributor in Miami. He hit long home runs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and played well in in right field. (His arm provided a big double play behind Lee.) Young also legged out an infield hit in the sixth inning Wednesday night that started a two-out, two-run rally that featured a long triple by Domonic Brown, who is up to 24 RBIs, one shy of the team lead shared by Ryan Howard and Utley.

Sixty at-bats into his time with the Phillies, Young is hitting .233. Two games ago, he was hitting .192.

He’s moving in the right direction.

“I’ve always thought Delmon would hit,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “I’ve been saying that. When we got him, our people thought he’d help us. We always thought he was an RBI guy.”

Lee, who is 9-2 with a 1.09 ERA in his last 12 starts against the NL East, is on a terrific roll. He has allowed just four runs in 31 innings over his last four starts.

Lee allowed just three hits (all singles) Wednesday night. He walked two and hit a batter. He did his best pitching in the second inning when he loaded the bases and got out of it with a 5-2-3 double play and a pop out.

“I was just trying to get a ground ball and a double play,” Lee said. “I was willing to sacrifice a run for two outs. Fortunately the ball was hit to third where we could get the out at home. That was huge.”

The Marlins didn’t do much against Lee the rest of the way.

“The last three innings I felt as good as I’ve felt in a long time,” Lee said. “I felt like I could put the ball right where I wanted.”

The Phillies are off on Thursday. They open a three-game series against the Nationals in Washington on Friday night.  

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."