On the Pharm: Gillies looking to regroup after demotion

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On the Pharm: Gillies looking to regroup after demotion

READING, Pa. -- Sometimes a guy needs to take a step back in order to move forward. Other times, a man needs to have something taken away from him in order to have his eyes opened.

By now one would assume that Phillies outfield prospect Tyson Gillies would have figured all of that out. After a brush with the law, a spate of injuries and a suspension, it would seem that Gillies would understand not to take anything for granted.

But sometimes a guy gets into a slump.

At least that’s what happened to Gillies during the first month of the 2013 season. Following a well-publicized stint with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, in which Gillies started alongside major league All-Stars Joey Votto of Cincinnati and Justin Morneau of Minnesota, the 24-year-old opened the season with his first stop at Triple A.

It didn’t last long.

“It hit me and it surprised me to be back here so soon,” Gillies said. “But I’m going to make the best of it. It’s not like there’s easy pitching down here, either. I’ve seen a lot of great arms down here and I can still get better as a baseball player.”

Gillies batted just .148 with 13 strikeouts in 18 games for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. This came after he went 0 for 14 for Team Canada in the WBC and played a prominent role in a brawl with Mexico. Or, as Gillies called it, “some Canadian bonding experience.”

Still, the brawl didn’t project a great image for Gillies, who has been arrested for cocaine possession -- the charges were dropped for lack of evidence -- and was suspended after an altercation with the team bus driver. Gillies also is legally deaf, though his handicap is unnoticeable to those not in the know.

However, in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game against Altoona at FirstEnergy Stadium, Gillies was doubled off first base on an infield pop up. Running on the pitch to Edgar Duran, Gillies never heard the crack of the bat. By the time he realized that the ball was in play, Gillies was sliding into second with what he thought was a stolen base.

But it’s hitting and not base running that Gillies has focused on this season. A strong finish to the 2012 season following a promotion to Reading paved the course to Triple A.

Now he’s back at Reading looking to find his stroke.

“I’m trying some things hitting-wise,” Gillies said. “I'm trying to generate more power and hit to the left side of the field. But this has been the slowest start of my career.”

His manager at Reading, Dusty Wathan, says Gillies has to focus on his hitting mechanics.

“He’s done a pretty good job. The one thing he has to stay away from is getting that front side open,” Wathan said. “That’s when he has a tendency to roll over balls to the first-base side.  When he keeps that front shoulder in he can drive the ball.”

Though he says he is notorious for his slow starts, Gillies was demoted to Double A Reading. At first he was upset about not being able to stick with Lehigh Valley, but quickly saw the demotion as an opportunity.

“I’m really slow, but not this slow,” Gillies explained. “I usually take a while to adjust to pitching and getting my eye and seeing the ball well.”

Gillies went 1 for 4, reaching on an error and a single Wednesday night to lift his average to .246 since joining Reading. In the last 11 games, Gillies is 10 for 33 (.313), hitting mostly from the leadoff spot. Hitting at the top of the order may have re-energized Gillies a bit, but there are still many parts of his game that need work.

Though he has lots of speed, Gillies is 5 for 8 on steal attempts and just 1 for 3 at Reading. He also misplayed a fly ball at the warning track into a two-out RBI triple. For Gillies, acquired in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to Seattle, there is plenty of raw talent.

The trick is going to be for the 24-year-old to hone it before he’s no longer considered a prospect.

“He has all the tools and it’s all there,” Wathan said. “He just has to trust himself.”

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."