Aaron Altherr forcing Phillies to reconsider master plan

Aaron Altherr forcing Phillies to reconsider master plan

His stroke is short and quick now, his return to prominence with the Phillies no less rapid.

Aaron Altherr, the guy who had to rethink his approach at the plate this spring, has forced the organization to reconsider its master plan.

An intriguing prospect in 2015 and injured afterthought last season, the young outfielder enters Monday's series finale against the Braves slashing .290/.364/.556. He leads the team in OPS (.920) and is tied with Tommy Joseph for the lead in homers with 16 while driving in 47 runs.

All that has come in 83 games, just over half a season. No reason to get too excited yet. But enough to give everyone something to think about.

On Saturday night, manager Pete Mackanin sat in his office before a game against Atlanta and talked not only about the 26-year-old Altherr but another outfielder, rookie Nick Williams, who was called up from Lehigh Valley on June 30. How Altherr has “really responded well” this season, and how the .277-hitting Williams is “really holding his own.”

“Those two guys in themselves is a real bonus,” Mackanin said, “just to get a look at them to see if they can fit in here. I’m not saying it’s a done deal (that they will be regulars), but it really bodes well.”

Lately, Mackanin has been playing Altherr and Williams at the corner spots with the enigmatic Odubel Herrera, and things will likely stay that way most of the rest of the season. Certainly, Daniel Nava will see some daylight when he comes off the disabled list, and maybe a call-up like Dylan Cozens or Roman Quinn will get a look in September.

But that figures to be the most frequent configuration and might turn out to be the long-term solution in the outfield as well.

Fine with Altherr, who at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds is swift enough to play any of the three spots.

“We know he’s a good defender,” Mackanin said. “We know he can run. He’s got a good arm. Hitting is the last ingredient.”

That came around after some work in spring training with hitting coach Matt Stairs, who encouraged Altherr to lower his hands, allowing him to get his bat through the strike zone more quickly.

Almost immediately, Altherr said, “I felt more relaxed and a lot quicker to the ball.”

That he homered in his first simulated game only reinforced the idea that the new approach was the way to go.

“I was just like, ‘Maybe this will work out. … Maybe I’ll stick with this, and see how this goes,’” he said.

“It was,” Mackanin said, “a night-and-day difference. He’s just more compact.”

That has been evident all season, but never more than in the first two games of this series against the Braves. In Friday’s 10-3 victory, Altherr homered twice, on a 91 mph fastball from Julio Teheran and a 95 mph heater from reliever Jason Hursh.

And never mind that Mackanin had him in the seven-hole because he began the night 1 for 12 against Teheran. He picked out a 2-0 offering from the Atlanta starter and sent it soaring into the left-field seats, some 412 feet away.

“Especially in 2-0 counts and counts like that, you want to really zone in and get a pitch you can really do damage with,” Altherr said. “I was able to do that.”

He was looking fastball on the 2-1 pitch from Hursh as well.

“Was able to put a pretty good swing on it,” Altherr said, “and it happened to go out.”

The next night, Altherr batted second against left-hander Sean Newcomb. (Against righties Mackanin plans to put Freddy Galvis in the 2-hole and hit Altherr third.) And with the Phils down 3-1 and Cesar Hernandez at third with none out in the eighth, Altherr lined a 2-2 fastball from reliever Arodys Vizcaino into right, starting the comeback that resulted in a 4-3, 11-inning victory.

(Also interesting was Newcomb’s approach when he fell behind Altherr 2-0 with two on and one out in the fifth. Newcomb, having seen what Altherr did against Teheran the night before, eschewed the fastball and went changeup/curveball/change, getting two strikes before inducing a short fly to right.)

All this comes a year later than expected. After a promising 39-game cameo in 2015 — Altherr generated 20 extra-base blows among 33 hits — he was penciled in as the regular rightfielder last season. But he tore the tendon sheath in his left wrist while attempting to make a diving catch in spring training and underwent surgery, delaying his season debut until July 28.

When he finally did play, he did little — .197 in 57 games. The talk at that point was that he was nothing more than an extra man.

But just like that, things changed again.

“That’s really the big thing (this season) — just knowing the wrist is all good and I can do what I know I can do,” he said. “And the work that Stairsy has done with me has helped me out tremendously, so all that definitely adds up to being more confident, more relaxed.”

And much more prominent.

Henderson Alvarez solid as audition with Phillies continues in loss to Braves

Henderson Alvarez solid as audition with Phillies continues in loss to Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — It had been three years to the day since Henderson Alvarez had notched a pitching victory in the major leagues. Back on Sept. 23, 2014, while pitching for the Miami Marlins in a season in which he made the National League All-Star team, he beat the Phillies with 7 2/3 shutout innings.
 
A shoulder injury limited Alvarez to just four starts the next season. He did not pitch in 2016 and was forced to show his wares in the Independent Atlantic League before latching on with the Phillies in late August.
 
The Phils were looking for some pitching depth to get through the season, but Alvarez didn't care about the reason. He was happy for the audition in Triple A and the call to the majors this month.
 
Alvarez's long road back from surgery put him on the mound at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, on Saturday night, exactly three years after his last big-league win. It would have been pretty sweet for the 27-year-old right-hander to come out of the assignment with a win — and he was in line to get it before the bullpen let a late lead get away in a 4-2 loss to the Braves (see observations).
 
"It is what it is," Alvarez said, shrugging after the game. "That's the way baseball is sometimes. You have to make every single out. There are things you cannot control. You just go out there and try your best."
 
Alvarez pitched five shutout innings and left with a 2-0 lead thanks to an RBI double by Rhys Hoskins and another run that scored on a passed ball.
 
"He pitched through five innings, got through it and didn't give up a run," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His ball had some movement and he changed speeds."
 
The bullpen could not hold the lead. Newcomer Kevin Siegrist gave up a solo homer to Rio Ruiz in the sixth inning on a 1-2 breaking ball that registered 69 mph on the radar gun. Two innings later, Luis Garcia was tagged for three runs as the Braves tied the game and took the lead.
 
Up and down the roster, the Phillies are in audition mode. Siegrist, a waiver claim from St. Louis, is looking to stick with the club as a lefty out of the bullpen. Ditto for Adam Morgan, who has been sensational over the last couple of months. He racked up another scoreless inning in this game and has allowed just two runs in his last 23 innings, dating to Aug. 2. Garcia has been auditioning toward the back of the bullpen and performed well. He had not allowed an earned run in his last 12 1/3 innings before this outing.
 
Garcia allowed three hits and three runs. Dansby Swanson singled home the tying run after Garcia fell behind in the count and had to pump fastballs with a man on second, and pinch-hitter Johan Camargo broke the tie with a two-out, two-run double to right-center.
 
"When you're pitching in a clutch situation, you can't fall behind hitters," Mackanin said. "You’ve got to get ahead. I think he threw five consecutive fastballs to Swanson. He tried to get a strike and couldn't do it. And you have to do it to be successful. You cannot get behind the hitters.
 
"It all comes down to getting clutch hits, making clutch plays and making clutch pitches. We're looking to win a World Series. You've got to be clutch."
 
The Phillies could have used a clutch hit or two to pad their early lead. In one big situation, they had the bases loaded against Braves starter Julio Teheran with two outs in the seventh and Odubel Herrera grounded out to second base on Teheran's last pitch of the night.
 
Herrera is hitless in the first two games of the series after hitting in each of the first 13 games (at a .434 clip) between the two teams this season.
 
It's not clear where Alvarez fits into the Phillies' future — or even if he does. He could make one more start over the final week of the season or he could finish in the bullpen. It does not seem likely the Phillies would keep him on the 40-man roster all winter, but it's not difficult to envision the club trying to bring him back on a minor-league deal where he could provide organizational depth and continue to get stronger post-surgery. Several teams will probably have interest in doing that.
 
Whatever happens, Alvarez had to feel good about his work Saturday night. Though he did not get his win, it was a step in the right direction on the comeback trail.
 
"It's been a roller-coaster," he said. "I just have to keep working hard."

Best of MLB: Bruce Maxwell 1st player to kneel during anthem; Yanks clinch playoff berth

ap-bruce_maxwell-athletics.jpg
Associated Press

Best of MLB: Bruce Maxwell 1st player to kneel during anthem; Yanks clinch playoff berth

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics has become the first major league baseball player to kneel during the national anthem.

Maxwell dropped to a knee just outside Oakland's dugout on Saturday before a game against the Texas Rangers, adopting a protest started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in response to police treatment of blacks. Maxwell's teammates stood in a line next to him. Teammate Mark Canha, who is white, put his right hand on one of Maxwell's shoulders.

The Athletics released a statement on Twitter shortly after the anthem, saying they "respect and support all of our players' constitutional rights and freedom of expression" and "pride ourselves on being inclusive."

Major League Baseball also issued a statement, saying it has "a longstanding tradition of honoring our nation prior to the start of our games" but that "we also respect that each of our players is an individual with his own background, perspectives and opinions (See full story).

Yankees clinch postseason berth by beating Blue Jays 
TORONTO -- One year into a rebuild, the New York Yankees are back in the playoffs.

Greg Bird, among the new generation of Baby Bombers, hit a three-run homer that led New York over the Toronto Blue Jays 5-1 on Saturday to clinch no worse than a wild card.

"I feel like our motto in the offseason was: `We're going to surprise people,'" Bird said. "Obviously, we had a good spring, but we knew that wasn't the real deal. We came out and played our game the whole year, and I feel like we showed people."

Sonny Gray (10-11), among New York's midseason reinforcements, allowed one run and four hits in six innings as the Yankees won for the 11th time in 14 games and at 86-68 matched their season high of 18 games over .500.

"I didn't know exactly what we were going to be this year, but when I saw the way these kids were playing in spring training and the depth of our talent, it got me really excited and I thought it was possible," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

Chase Headley reached base three times to help the Yankees reach the postseason for the 53rd time in franchise history. The Los Angeles Dodgers are second with 31. 

Lindor's 33rd homer leads Indians over Mariners 
SEATTLE -- Now that he's set a Cleveland record for home runs by a middle infielder, Francisco Lindor would rather remember 2017 for a far bigger accomplishment.

Lindor led off the game with his 33rd home run, and the Indians routed the Seattle Mariners 11-4 Saturday for their 28th victory in 30 games.

"It's cool. Something that'll be there for a long time," Lindor said, "but I'm just focusing on trying to win. When you focus on winning, those things happen."

Carlos Carrasco (17-6) matched teammate Cory Kluber and Boston's Chris Sale for the most wins in the AL, allowing one run and six hits in 5 2/3 innings. Yan Gomes homered twice and had four RBIs, and Jose Ramirez homered and drove in four runs.

Cleveland, which set the AL record with a 22-game winning streak this month, matched the 1884 Providence Grays for the best big league record over a 30-game span at 28-2. The Indians (97-58) lead Houston (95-59) for AL home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Lindor, a 23-year-old shortstop, homered on the eighth pitch from Andrew Moore (1-5) and surpassed the 32 home runs hit by second baseman Joe Gordon in 1948, the last year Cleveland won the World Series. 

Red Sox move closer to AL East title with 5-0 win over Reds
CINCINNATI --  The Red Sox took another step toward a division title, putting up another shutout that ended with a feel-good moment for their manager.

Mitch Moreland ended his long slump with a three-run homer, Eduardo Rodriguez pitched three-hit ball into the eighth inning, and Boston beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-0 on Saturday.

Boston has won 13 of 16, holding a four-game lead over the Yankees with eight to play. The Red Sox are trying to win back-to-back AL East titles for the first time since divisional realignment in 1969. They've got their best record of the season at 90-64, reaching 90 wins for the second year in a row.

It ended with a ninth inning that was unlike anything manager John Farrell has experienced. His son, Luke, relieved for the Reds, giving them a special moment in a competitive situation.

"It was somewhat surreal," he said. "Very proud. You're standing there looking through a netting in the dugout and you think you're maybe watching him throw back in Little League, in high school. To see it happen on a major league mound - a special day, a special inning."

The reliever walked two in a scoreless inning and glanced back at the Boston dugout, momentarily removing his cap, as he headed for the Reds dugout.