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.

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.