Lee dazzles, Ruiz rewards Sandberg in Phils' win

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Lee dazzles, Ruiz rewards Sandberg in Phils' win

BOX SCORE

LOS ANGELES -- Ryne Sandberg has displayed a little managerial wizardry, a little Ryno Magic, the last couple of days.

On Sunday, he used John Mayberry Jr. as a late-game defensive replacement for hard-handed first baseman Ryan Howard. The move proved auspicious when Mayberry dug a ball out of the dirt to preserve a one-run victory in Denver.

Monday night, Sandberg mixed up a lineup potion that had Carlos Ruiz in the cleanup hole even though the Phillies' catcher did not have a home run or an RBI in 49 at-bats this season.

Presto!

Ruiz drove in four runs, two on a first-inning double and two more on a ninth-inning home run, to help propel the Phillies to a 7-0 win over the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium (see Instant Replay).

Of course, Ruiz was only part of an ensemble effort in the Phillies' winning cause.

Howard homered for the second straight game, giving him five in 19 games. His long, two-run shot to right-center against lefty Paul Maholm gave the Phils a 4-0 lead in fifth. Howard added an opposite-field single in the seventh as the Phils finished with 11 hits. They had 15 on Sunday.

The star of the game had just one single and struck out twice.

We’re talking, of course, about Cliff Lee. As good as Ruiz and Howard were -- and as good as Chase Utley’s defensive gem in the first inning was -- Lee was the star. He allowed just four hits over eight shutout innings, did not walk a batter and struck out 10.

Since being roughed up for eight runs in five innings on opening day in Texas, Lee has made four starts and allowed just four runs over 30 innings. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio in those four starts is an eye-popping 37-to-1.

Lee was coming off a start in which he struck out 13 Atlanta Braves but took a 1-0 loss because the Phillies, as they are wont to do, didn’t hit.

This time, they hit.

Lee was so good that Ruiz's two-run double in the first was enough for him.

“That was huge,” Lee said of Ruiz's opposite-field double. “An early lead is definitely good for the pitchers. We did that and we extended the lead; Howard hit that two-run homer to give us a four-run lead. That definitely makes it easier on the pitchers to go out there, be aggressive, and throw strikes.”

And Lee did plenty of that.

“Cliff was outstanding,” Sandberg said. “He’s pitched well all year.

“He just dominated the strike zone. He pitched well inside and out, and as he went along mixed in breaking pitches. But he was in total control out there.

“He’s just a quality pitcher. He gets after it. He’s a gamer. He’s a battler. His command was pinpoint. He worked well with Chooch all night.”

Lee is 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in five starts at Dodger Stadium.

Sandberg gave Marlon Byrd his first night off of the season and batted Howard fifth, as he will do against left-handed pitchers. In need of a cleanup man, Sandberg went to Ruiz, who has hit second, third, sixth and seventh this season.

Now he can add cleanup to the list.

“He’s a versatile hitter,” Sandberg said of Ruiz. “Facing a lefty -- sometimes that will give a guy like him a boost. Obviously he came through in a big way. He swung the bat well in the four spot.”

Ruiz was aware that he did not have a home run or an RBI.

“It can happen,” he said. “When you don’t swing the bat real good, it’s hard to get some RBIs. For me, I've been working the count and going from there. If I was thinking about not having an RBI, I'd be putting pressure on myself. So I had to stay strong and continue to work hard.”

Ruiz's two-run double in the first was important because it gave the Phillies an early lead. The Dodgers had been 11-2 when they scored first. Lee registered a shutdown inning in the bottom of the first thanks to Utley’s defensive gem. He halted Adrian Gonzalez's base hit in shallow center field, wheeled and threw home to prevent hard-rushing Yasiel Puig from scoring from second.

Lee was appreciative.

“It was definitely advanced,” Lee said of Utley's play, which resembled the famous one he made in the 2008 World Series. “That just shows he's one step ahead of the game. Maybe he could get the guy at first, but he had a pretty good idea of how Puig would be running the bases and he was dead on. He was aggressively rounding third and going home. Chase anticipated that and got him out. That's advanced. That just shows how he's one step ahead and is a prime example of the kind of player he is.”

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”