Papelbon blows it for Phils in tough loss to Texas

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Papelbon blows it for Phils in tough loss to Texas

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ARLINGTON, Tex. – After being beaten down by all the losing in 2013, Jonathan Papelbon came back this season with a new, positive, upbeat attitude.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, he has the same tired fastball, and the team still has the same haunting questions at the closer position.

Three outs were all that stood between Papelbon and his first save of the new season Wednesday night. More importantly, three outs were all that stood between the Phillies and a season-opening series win against the Texas Rangers.

Once upon a time, Papelbon would have stuffed those three outs into his back pocket and the Phillies would have boarded their charter flight to Chicago in the highest of spirits.

Instead, that flight to Chicago must have been miserable.

Papelbon couldn’t get the three outs the team needed. In his first save chance of the new season, he failed to protect a two-run lead in the ninth inning. The Rangers rallied for three runs against Papelbon and danced off the field with a 4-3 win, their second walk-off victory against the Phillies’ bullpen in 24 hours (see Instant Replay).

“That was a tough one,” Carlos Ruiz sighed in the somber losing clubhouse, moments after Papelbon walked in the winning run with the bases loaded.

It was a tough loss and an alarming one, as well, because the Phillies are counting on the highly-paid Papelbon -- $13 million this season and next –- to nail down wins. However, when he was called on to nail down this one, he looked no better than the guy he was last year when he blew seven saves and had a career-worst 81 percent save percentage while striking out a career-low 8.3 batters per nine innings.

Papelbon faced seven batters in the game and retired just one. He allowed four hits and walked two. His best fastball was between 90 and 92 mph. In his prime, it was 95.

After the game, the 33-year-old closer blamed his problems on a mechanical flaw.

“I was definitely flying open a little and coming out of my delivery,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a disappointment.”

Without the pop he once had, Papelbon now has to mix pitches and, for the first time in his career, concede to some contact. In this game, he relied on his low-octane fastball and left it up in the strike zone, where hitters feasted.

“They were on his fastball and he was elevating it,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “He can’t rely on contact up in the zone. He needs his secondary pitches and he needs to be down.”

Papelbon allowed hits to three of the first four batters he faced in the ninth. The third hit was an infield squibber by Jim Adduci that scored a run and put runners on the corners with one out.

With the pressure building and the Phils’ lead down to one, pitching coach Bob McClure visited Papelbon and told him to get a ground ball. Papelbon did get Leonys Martin to hit a ground ball to the first-base side of the second base bag, but it got by Chase Utley, who was playing about three steps off the grass because his priority was to cut the tying run at the plate. The middle infield would have only gone for a double play on a sharply hit ball right at the second baseman or shortstop. The Phillies call that “Three Depth.” The defense is called from the bench.

Papelbon did not appear to be thrilled with the defensive call. In fact, he threw his arms up in the air when Martin’s hit traveled into center field, driving in the tying run.

“Obviously I don’t know whether that’s called from the bench or by the middle infielders,” Papelbon said. “But less than two outs, I’m thinking ground ball and I’m thinking let’s get this double play and go home.

“Obviously I’m not going to second-guess my teammates or my coach. Whatever they decide, I’ve got to run with it and go with it and do my best to do my job. But it’s just one of those weird innings, man.”

Sandberg did his best not to look worried about Papelbon. He mentioned how he was pleased with the offense during the series. He praised reliever Mario Hollands for bouncing back after taking the loss Tuesday night and pitching a scoreless eighth inning Wednesday night.

But when the conversation turned back to Papelbon and whether he thought his closer was trending downward, all Sandberg could say was, “We’ll see how it goes.”

So far, it doesn’t look good.

The Phillies are 1-2 and they have the same old haunting questions at the closer position.

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."