Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Dodgers go boom, boom, boom to burst Phillies' bubble

Dodgers go boom, boom, boom to burst Phillies' bubble

BOX SCORE

LOS ANGELES — For eight innings, it was a wonderful night for the Phillies.

Brock Stassi, the storybook kid, belted a three-run home run. Rookie Andrew Knapp had three hits, including his first big-league home run to give the Phils a three-run lead in the eighth inning, much to the delight of his family and friends whose cheers could be heard rising from deep within the sellout crowd of 53,110. Zach Eflin pitched superbly over seven-walk free innings and even the boys in the dugout had a little fun goofing on Tommy Joseph as he watched the game oblivious to the fact that he had a perfectly formed bubblegum sphere stuck to the top of his cap.

For the Phillies, there were plenty of reasons to be giddy.

And then the bubble burst, turning their happy little night into a crushing, oh-the-humanity, 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers (see Instant Replay).

"It's one of the worst losses I've ever been associated with, the way we lost," manager Pete Mackanin, looking shellshocked, said moments after it ended.

Trailing 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers tied the game in the blink of an eye when Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner hit consecutive solo home runs off closer-but-don't-call-him-closer Hector Neris.

Puig's homer was a laser into the left-field seats, capping an eight-pitch at-bat. Bellinger's was a shot off the right-field foul pole that electrified the huge crowd. Turner's was a pinch-hit shot to left.

"Those weren't windblown home runs," Mackanin said. "They were bombs. It's tough to take. I'm not real happy with the outcome."

Mackanin removed Neris after a one-out single by Austin Barnes. Lefty Joely Rodriguez came in and got an out, then allowed a two-out single to Corey Seager, bringing No. 3 hitter Adrian Gonzalez to the plate.

With the crowd roaring and the count 1-1, Gonzalez fouled off four straight pitches before hitting a bouncing ball to the left of third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco moved to the ball, but it hit off the end of his glove and bounced wildly as Barnes raced home from second with the winning run.

Gonzalez was awarded an RBI infield hit. But it could have been scored an error.

"I thought [Franco] should have caught it," Mackanin said. "I think he should have [made the play]."

Franco said he could not dive for the ball because it was bouncing so much.

"I was running hard for the ball, but it hit off the tip of my glove," Franco said. "I tried to go out there and do my best on that play. But, you know, I can't get that. I did everything I can on that play."

Really, the game was lost when Neris could not hold the lead. Once the ball started flying out of the park and the crowd started going wild, there was no holding back the Dodgers. They went boom, boom, boom and it was only a matter of time before the Phillies hit the canvas.

In both the macro and micro sense, the Phillies have a problem in the ninth inning.

In the macro, they have blown four saves in the ninth inning, two resulting in painful walk-off losses. The team ERA in the ninth is an appalling 8.83. Neris is the third pitcher to be used as closer (even though Mackanin is reluctant to use the term) and the season isn't even a month old yet.

"I'd like to have a lights-out closer, but we don't have one right now," Mackanin said. "We'll continue to look at it."

In the micro, Neris is still probably best suited for the closer's job, but he needs to make some fixes. Two of the three homers he gave up came on fastballs. Mackanin wants to see more splitters. That pitch helped Neris strike out over 11 batters per nine innings last season.

"One thing about Neris is for some reason he's getting away from his split," Mackanin said. "He wants to throw more fastballs and that's not going to work.

"I think Neris is capable of being a closer, but for some reason, he's just not throwing his split as often as he did and that's his out pitch, the pitch that makes him who he is, who he was, and he's gotten away from it and throwing more fastballs. We'll have a talk with him and get it straightened out."

Neris said pitch selection wasn't his problem in the ninth inning.

"It wasn't because they were fastballs," he said. "It was the location.

"It was just a bad day. Everyone has one."

But this bad?

"What a way to lose," Mackanin groaned. "A real letdown."

Best of MLB: Ivan Nova tosses 3-hitter as Pirates shut out Marlins

Best of MLB: Ivan Nova tosses 3-hitter as Pirates shut out Marlins

MIAMI -- Ivan Nova pitched a three-hitter and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Miami Marlins 4-0 on Saturday night.

John Jaso homered and drove in two runs, Jordy Mercer knocked in a run, and Gregory Polanco had two doubles for the Pirates, who have won three straight.

Nova (3-2) struck out seven and did not walk a batter in the 95-pitch masterpiece. He retired 11 in a row at one point.

Nova continued his impressive start to the season, which includes walking just one batter over 27 innings as he lowered his ERA to 1.50 while tossing his second complete game and the eighth of his career.

Dan Strailey (1-2) nearly matched Nova through five innings allowing only one run before running into trouble in the sixth when he allowed a base hit followed by three consecutive walks including Francisco Cervelli with the bases loaded ending his outing (see full recap).

Conforto's 2 home runs power Mets past Nationals
WASHINGTON -- Michael Conforto hit two home runs and slumping Jose Reyes also connected, leading the New York Mets over the Washington Nationals 5-3 Saturday.

The banged-up Mets had lost six in a row when they began this series at Nationals Park against the team with the best record in the majors. Behind their power and bullpen, the Mets beat Washington for the second straight day.

Conforto's two-run homer in the fifth gave the Mets a 3-1 lead and his sixth home run of the season made it 4-2 in the eighth. It was Conforto's second multihomer game in the majors -- as a rookie, he did it in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series against Kansas City.

Hansel Robles (4-0) came in to start the sixth and retired five of the six batters he faced, striking out four. Jerry Blevins then took over and fanned Bryce Harper.

Jeurys Familia, pulled Friday night in the ninth inning while Washington tried to rally, retired three straight hitters to earn his first save of the season.

Stephen Strasburg (2-1) gave up three runs in seven innings (see full recap).

Gardner busts out, Yanks hit 4 more HRs to rout Orioles
NEW YORK -- Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge and the thundering New York Yankees picked up right where they left off the previous night, steamrolling past the Baltimore Orioles 12-4 on Saturday for their fourth straight victory.

Gardner homered twice from the leadoff spot and had his first four RBIs of the season. Austin Romine, the No. 9 batter, also went deep and knocked in five runs. Judge, not to be outdone, clocked his latest colossal homer and scored four times as New York won its 14th in 17 games to boost the American League's best record to 15-7.

Michael Pineda (3-1) did not allow an earned run in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight, and the Yankees knocked Baltimore out of first place in the AL East for the first time this season.

Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez (1-1) was tagged for a season-high seven runs -- six earned -- and five hits with three walks.

In a series-opening slugfest Friday night, the Yankees hit five homers and rallied from eight runs down for a 14-11 victory capped by Matt Holliday's three-run shot in the 10th inning (see full recap).