Papelbon likes what he sees out of his, um, wrestlers

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Papelbon likes what he sees out of his, um, wrestlers

It’s not usual to see a player or two running sprints in the outfield three or four hours before a major league baseball game. But this routine pre-game exercise had a little different look to it Saturday afternoon in St. Louis.

Five young Phillies relievers -- Jake Diekman, Ethan Martin, Mario Hollands, Justin De Fratus and Kenny Giles -- ran a dozen sprints together on a virtually empty field.

When the workout was over, they assembled in a huddle and exchanged a group high-five.

You may have noticed that the Phillies’ bullpen has been on a pretty good roll the last month.

There are a lot of reasons for this:

Talent is a big one.

So is the experience that has been gained by the bullpen’s young core.

Togetherness is another.

This togetherness was on display during pre-game sprints Saturday in St. Louis.

“It’s fun to do it together,” said Diekman, who at 27 is the oldest of the aforementioned group of relievers. “Everyone down there has each other’s back. We have fun. We pull for each other.”

Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen, who spent 17 years in big-league bullpens, says this togetherness is crucial to a bullpen’s success.

“You become a family within a family,” he said. “You root for each other. You want to come through for each other. One guy allows a couple of baserunners, you want to get him out of it.”

The closer a bullpen is, the more fun it can have.

During last Friday night’s game in St. Louis, Phillies relievers were dive-bombed by swarms of moths throughout the game.

“It was crazy,” Diekman said with a laugh. “I was trying to whip them with a towel. De Fratus was trying to shank them.”

Having fun is important, Andersen said.

“You need to have fun,” he said. “It relaxes you. When you’re relaxed you pitch better.”

Closer Jonathan Papelbon is the leader of the good-times squad in the bullpen -- at least until it’s time to get his game face on. That’s one thing about a bullpen. The first few innings of a game can be fun, but when the later innings come, it’s time to focus. This Phillies group has learned how to do that.

Papelbon likes to play the role of villain in some of his dealings with the media, but beneath his prickly exterior is a character who likes to laugh. He’s not the bad guy some people think he is.

“That’s 100 percent false,” Diekman said. “He’s very supportive of the guys in the bullpen. He’s always asking, ‘How do you feel?’ He gives you advice. He wants to see you do well. He’s happy when you do well. He wants you to do well so he has a chance to get in the game.”

So he’s not a bad guy?

“Nope,” Diekman said. “I just think he feeds off it.”

Manager Ryne Sandberg and pitching coach Bob McClure both credit Papelbon for being a mentor to the young relievers.

Papelbon is a pro wrestling aficionado. Over the last few weeks, he has given his mates in the bullpen nicknames to go along with pro wrestlers.

Diekman is Jake the Snake Roberts.

De Fratus is Goldust.

Giles is Diamond Dallas Page.

Martin is the Iron Sheik.

Hollands is Eddie Guerrero.

Mike Adams is The Hulk.

Antonio Bastardo is Rey Mysterio.

B.J. Rosenberg is Stone Cold.

Jeff Manship is Mankind.

Bullpen catchers Jesus Tiamo and Bob Stumpo are The Bushwhackers.

Bullpen coach Rod Nichols’ nickname is a classic -- Vince McMahon.

Papelbon, of course, is Ric Flair. He enters games to a sound track of Flair’s booming voice at Citizens Bank Park.

These aren’t just nicknames to Papelbon. He wants to see the real-life wrestling personas on the mound.

“I gave Diekman the nickname Jake the Snake,” Papelbon said. “When he takes the mound, I want to see Jake the Snake out there.

“When I take the mound, I don’t want Pap out there. I want Ric Flair out there.

“When Martin is out there, I want to see the Iron Sheik.”

There’s a lot of rough-edge attitude in wrestling. Papelbon thinks it can help out of the bullpen, too.

“Find your inner warrior,” he said. “If you think you’re a bad ass, there’s a better chance you’ll be a bad ass.”

Back in spring training, Papelbon predicted that the Phillies would have a top-five bullpen in the majors this season. At the time, a lot of folks snickered at his prediction because the Phillies’ bullpen ranked fourth-worst in the majors last season with a 4.13 ERA. Through June 2 of this season, it ranked second-worst in the NL with a 4.30 ERA.

Thanks to recent success that includes Bastardo allowing just one earned run in his last 19 1/3 innings, and Hollands and De Fratus riding scoreless streaks of 15 2/3 and 14 innings, respectively, the Phils’ bullpen is the best in baseball since June 3. Two more scoreless innings Wednesday night left it with an ERA of 1.25 since June 3.

“The experience was there coming into the season,” Papelbon said. “Now we’re getting the consistency. A big reason is because they’ve found their inner warrior. You have to believe it in your head and these guys are believing it.

“I’ve seen guys with great stuff who didn’t have the warrior attitude and they couldn’t make it. These guys are getting it and I love it. I can see it in their eyes. It’s a look that says: ‘Get me in there. I can get us out of this thing.’

“They want the ball. The phone rings, they want to hear their name and if it’s not their name, they’re ticked off. It wasn’t that way before.”

Confidence will do that for a reliever.

It can make you want the ball.

“We feel super-confident down there,” Diekman said. “Everyone has gotten experience. There’s talent and also a little bit of cockiness. It’s a good cockiness, like not being scared.”

Talent. Experience. Togetherness.

Warriors and wrestlers.

Whatever it takes. The Phillies bullpen is coming of age.

MLB Notes: Austin Jackson makes Indians' opening day roster

MLB Notes: Austin Jackson makes Indians' opening day roster

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Outfielder Austin Jackson took an opportunity with the Cleveland Indians and ran with it.

Jackson was informed on Sunday that he has made Cleveland's opening-day roster, giving the AL champions some outfield depth in case Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley aren't ready for the start of the season.

The 30-year-old Jackson signed a minor league deal with the Indians in January. He missed the early part of training camp as he recovered from left knee surgery, but Jackson has made up for lost time by batting .375 with one homer and five RBIs in Cactus League games.

Jackson played in only 54 games last year with the Chicago White Sox before undergoing knee surgery to repair torn meniscus. He's played in the postseason with Detroit and the Cubs.

Jackson had an out clause in his contract that had to be exercised by Sunday (see full story).

Rockies: Mark Reynolds' contract selected from Triple A
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies have selected the contract of first baseman Mark Reynolds from Triple-A Albuquerque.

Reynolds figures to be the starter at first in the absence of Ian Desmond, who is out with a broken left hand.

The 33-year-old Reynolds hit a career-best .282 last season with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs. He was limited to 32 at-bats after Aug. 11. He broke a bone in his left hand while swinging a bat, had surgery on Aug. 15, was activated Aug. 31 and broke his left wrist when he was hit by a pitch on Sept. 18.

He re-signed with Colorado in February on a minor-league deal.

Also Sunday, Colorado placed right-hander Chad Bettis on the 60-day disabled list as he deals with testicular cancer. There is no timetable for Bettis' return.

Tigers: Lowe released; Jimenez to minor-league camp
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Detroit Tigers have released right-handed reliever Mark Lowe, one of several cuts before Sunday's spring training game against Toronto.

Detroit also optioned catcher John Hicks to Triple-A Toledo, and the Tigers reassigned right-handers Joe Jimenez, Ruben Alaniz, Logan Kensing, Arcenio Leon and Edward Mujica, infielder Dominic Ficociello and outfielders Anthony Gose and Juan Perez to minor league camp.

The Tigers signed Lowe to an $11 million, two-year contract before last season, but he was ineffective in 2016, going 1-3 with a 7.11 ERA in 54 appearances. He had a 5.19 ERA in nine appearances this spring.

In 2015, Lowe went 1-3 with a 1.96 ERA in 57 games with Seattle and Toronto.

Phillies 6, Pirates 3: Andrew Knapp's big day comes at the right time

Phillies 6, Pirates 3: Andrew Knapp's big day comes at the right time

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ever since Andrew Knapp earned his way onto the Phillies' 40-man roster back in November, it seemed to be a fait accompli that he would end up as the team's backup catcher on opening day.

But that's not to say he didn't have to shine just a little bit in spring training to validate his standing.

Knapp got off to a slow start in Grapefruit League play -- one hit in his first 22 at-bats -- but he began the final week of camp with his best game on Sunday. He went 2 for 4 with a two-run home run and threw out two runners on the bases.

"It's been nice to get some games back-to-back," Knapp said. "I struggled a little bit early just taking a lot of time off in between at-bats and behind the plate. But this past week, I've been able to get in there a lot and start to get in the flow of the game a little bit. I think I was trying to do too much early on."

The increased playing time is likely a sign that Knapp will end up on the 25-man roster. The Phils have two non-roster veteran catchers -- Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan -- in camp. Both can opt out of their minor-league contracts in the coming days if they aren't going to make the club.

Phillies officials are looking to make as few subtractions from the 40-man roster as they can in constructing their bench and bullpen (see story). That's why things are looking good for Knapp.

But he's taking nothing for granted. Though Phillies officials were scheduled to meet Sunday evening "to try to get as close to the finalization as we can," in manager Pete Mackanin's words, opening day rosters don't have to be officially submitted until next Sunday, a day before the season opener.

"I'm just trying to keep my head down and not think about it that much," Knapp said. "The playing helps a lot. When you're just sitting on the bench, you're thinking about a million things. But when you're in the game, you get away from that a little bit. Just go out there, play, and enjoy the game. It's helped a lot."

The rest of the bench
Andres Blanco and Aaron Altherr are both set on the bench. Knapp looks good. That leaves two open spots, presuming the Phillies go with a five-man bench.

Chris Coghlan and Daniel Nava, both non-roster veterans, have played extensively in recent days. That suggests they could be the lead candidates. If that's the case, Brock Stassi, who has not played the last two days, could be on the outside. Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp and he has played well. He's also on the 40-man roster and that would play in his favor. However, at 22, he might be better served to get regular playing time in Triple A.

Neither Coghlan nor Nava is on the 40-man roster so the Phils would have to clear spots to carry them.

Coghlan made an excellent running catch against the wall in left field Sunday.

The game
The Phillies had 15 hits and six of them were for extra bases, including homers by Knapp and Maikel Franco, in their 6-3 win over the Pirates.

Clay Buchholz, who had not pitched in 10 days after traveling home for the birth of his son, was rusty. He gave up five hits and three runs in 3 1/3 innings. He walked four and struck out four.

"Four walks is definitely subpar, but, you know, it's still spring training," Buchholz said.

The right-hander has allowed 11 runs over his last 14 2/3 innings.

"You can't honestly say he's had a good spring, but he was up close to 90 pitches today so pitch-count-wise he's doing fine," Mackanin said. "He hadn't pitched in 10 days so I can understand his lack of command. Once he's into a rhythm I think he'll be fine."

Venditte shines
Ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings.

"It's fun to watch Venditte pitch," Mackanin said. "If I'm up in the stands and I see him throw four pitches from the right side and I reach over to get my Coke or beer and I look back up and he's throwing from the left side I will start wondering how many beers I had. He's fun to watch."

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays in Dunedin on Monday night. Vince Velasquez will start against Toronto's Aaron Sanchez.

The Phils could have several roster moves during the day as the 25-man roster continues to come into focus.