On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone


On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- It was the middle of June and Maikel Franco, the Phillies’ top hitting prospect, was batting just .216 in his first season at Triple A.

The slow start at Lehigh Valley came after a stint in the Dominican winter league, where Franco batted .226 with 12 extra-base hits and 34 strikeouts in 47 games.

Still, none of the brass with Lehigh Valley was worried about Franco. Still only 21, Franco was not only at Triple A a bit ahead of schedule, but also there was nothing wrong with his work ethic or mechanics.

Franco, for a lack of a better term, was trying too hard at the plate. Chalk up the early-season struggles to youthful exuberance.

“He’s always going to be aggressive. He’s always going to swing at some bad pitches on occasion,” Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage said.

“The first couple of months, I think he wanted to prove that he belonged here in Triple A and was knocking on the big-league door. But every level is different.”

That hasn’t been the case lately, though. Heading into Friday’s game, Franco was 14 for 52 (.269) in August with two homers and eight RBIs. Those aren’t exactly stop-the-presses numbers, but considering Franco’s batting average fell to .207 heading into July, Franco is starting to find his consistency.

In 37 games in July and August, Franco is batting .318 (48 for 151) with six homers and 31 RBIs. The RBI total -- Franco has 62 this season -- comes from a .273 batting average with runners in scoring position. That’s not bad when noting that Franco hasn’t hit a three-run homer all year and eight of his 11 bombs have been solo shots.

“He’s found his comfort zone,” Brundage said. “He’s come along in the second half, his command of the strike zone is better and he’s swinging at better pitches. That’s why he’s had some success.”

And with success, everything else comes, too.

“You need to have some success to have some confidence,” Brundage said. “He had a couple of good games and settled down and didn’t feel like he had to do too much. Everything fell into place. You need to be comfortable and you need to be confident, and when both of those things came, he started swinging the bat a little bit and it started to carry over.”

There is some speculation that Franco could finish the season with a September callup. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did not rule out the possibility when reporters asked him on Wednesday in Anaheim.

Despite the struggles through the first three months of the season, a late-season callup wouldn’t be surprising for Franco. After all, last season, the third baseman and sometimes first baseman batted .320 with 31 homers and 103 RBIs in 134 games between High-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading. He was the winner of the Paul Owens Award, given to the best hitting and pitching prospects in the Phillies’ system, and appeared in the 2013 and 2014 Futures Games during the major-league All-Star Game weekend.

Franco appears to have regained that form. The difference between how Franco played at the beginning of the season compared to the second half was eye opening.

“Night and day,” Brundage said. “His approach is a lot better and the biggest thing is his confidence.”

There also is some speculation that Franco could join the Phillies and take some playing time at first base against lefty pitchers. Certainly that sounds reasonable since Franco has dabbled some at first base, playing 21 games there this season.

But Franco is a remarkable third baseman both with his glove and arm. According to some of the scouts looking in at Coca-Cola Park on Friday night, Franco is the best fielding third baseman in the league. Not only does he have the best arm, but also the softest hands with smart instincts.

Franco has committed just eight errors in 92 games at third base this season. In Friday’s game, he used his glove to slow down a screaming shot and seemed to lure the runner to go for second base as he looked to recover the ball along the third-base line in short left field.

“Defensively he’s been the same all year,” Brundage said.

When the runner went for second, Franco retrieved the ball and fired an off-balance, back-footed throw to second to get the out by two feet.

“He knows he has a big arm,” Brundage said. “Any time you have that kind of arm strength, it makes up for a lot of deficiencies.”

Brundage says Franco’s future is as a third baseman. Franco just wants to be out there, but, yeah, he likes playing third base the best.

“[First base is] not too bad, but I like third base better,” he said. “I’m playing -- I’m involved in every play.”

World Series: Arrieta, Schwarber lead Cubs past Indians to even series 1-1

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World Series: Arrieta, Schwarber lead Cubs past Indians to even series 1-1


CLEVELAND -- Jake Arrieta made a teasing try at history, Kyle Schwarber drove in two runs and the Chicago Cubs brushed off a shutout to even the World Series with their first Fall Classic win in 71 years, 5-1 over the Cleveland Indians in Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Arrieta carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, briefly invoking Don Larsen's name, before the Indians touched him for two hits and a run. However, the right-hander helped give Chicago just what it needed -- a split at Progressive Field -- before the Cubbies return to their Wrigley Field den for the next three games starting Friday night.

The Cubs hadn't won in the Series since beating Detroit 8-7 in 1945 to force Game 7.

The free-swinging Schwarber, who made it back for Chicago's long-awaited Series return after missing most of the season with an injured left knee, hit an RBI single in the third off Cleveland's Trevor Bauer and had another in the Cubs' three-run fifth -- highlighted by Ben Zobrist's run-scoring triple.

Even the presence of star LeBron James and the NBA champion Cavaliers, sporting their new rings, couldn't stop the Indians from losing for the first time in six home games this postseason.

And Cleveland manager Terry Francona's magical touch in October finally fizzled as he dropped to 9-1 in Series games.

With rain in the forecast, Major League Baseball moved the first pitch up an hour in hopes of avoiding delays or a postponement.

It turned out to be a good call as the game went on without a hitch and ended after more than four hours as light rain was beginning to fall.

Arrieta and the Cubs provided the only storm.

The bearded 30-year-old coasted through five innings without allowing a hit, the first pitcher to get that deep in a Series game with a no-hitter since David Cone of the New York Yankees in 1998.

For a brief period, Arrieta looked as if he might challenge Larsen's gem -- a perfect game -- in 1956 before Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, a die-hard Cubs fan as a kid, doubled with one out in the sixth .

Before that, Cleveland hitters had a couple good swings, and drew three walks, but couldn't mount a real threat. Arrieta has two career no-hitters, in fact, including the only one in the majors this year.

Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery replaced Arrieta and worked two scoreless innings before Aroldis Chapman came in and unleashed his 103 mph heat while getting the last four outs.

The teams will have an off day before the series resumes with Game 3 at Wrigley, which will host its first Series game since Oct. 6, 1945, when tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave with his pet goat, Murphy, and a curse was born.

Josh Tomlin will start for the Indians, who will lose the designated hitter in the NL ballpark, against Kyle Hendricks.

Schwarber might also wind up on the bench after two days as the DH.

With a gametime temperature of 43, the weather was more fitting for the Browns and Bears to bang heads than the boys of summer.

The Cubs were the ones who came up thumping after being blanked 6-0 in Game 1 by Corey Kluber and Cleveland's shut-down bullpen.

Zobrist's one-out triple triggered the fifth as the Cubs opened a 5-0 lead, not that Arrieta needed it.

After Anthony Rizzo walked following a 10-pitch at-bat, Zobrist laced a ball off Zach McAllister that was going to be a double until right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall slipped and fell. Rizzo was waved around and Zobrist hustled into third.

Schwarber followed with his second RBI and reliever Bryan Shawn later walked No. 9 hitter Addison Russell with the bases loaded.

Unlike his start in Toronto on Oct. 17, when his stitched cut opened up and Bauer was forced to make a bloody departure in the first inning, his finger held up fine.

The Cubs, though, put a few nicks in him in 3 2/3 innings.

The drone accident has brought attention to the quirky Bauer, and one Chicago fan tried to rattle the right-hander by sending a smaller version of the remote-controlled, flying object that cut him.

Bauer posted a photo of it on Twitter, saying "I see the (at)Cubs fans love me! How nice of them to send me a gift!"

The Cubs, who were off balance from the start against Kluber, scored their first run in a Series game since `45 in the first on Rizzo's RBI double .

Bauer needed 51 pitches to get through two innings, and he was one strike from getting out of the third unscathed when Chicago turned a walk and to singles into a 2-0 lead.

Up next
Cubs: Hendricks is coming off his brilliant performance in Game 5 of the NLCS when he pitched two-hit ball for seven innings as the Cubs clinched their first pennant in 71 years. The right-hander went 16-8 during the regular season with a league-leading 2.13 ERA.

Indians: It will be an emotional night for Tomlin, who will pitch on 12 day's rest with his ailing father, Jerry, in attendance. The elder Tomlin became stricken with a spinal condition in August, when Tomlin was struggling on the mound. The right-hander more than recovered and rescued Cleveland's rotation in the postseason, winning both starts.

World Series: Kluber, Perez help Indians shut out Cubs in Game 1

World Series: Kluber, Perez help Indians shut out Cubs in Game 1


CLEVELAND -- Corey Kluber got the Cleveland Indians off to a striking start and Roberto Perez put away Chicago in the Cubs' first World Series game since 1945.

Kluber dominated into the seventh inning, Perez homered twice and the Indians beat the Cubs 6-0 in the opener Tuesday night. AL Championship Series MVP Andrew Miller escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh and got out of trouble in the eighth, preserving a three-run lead.

"It's almost like you have that extra level of intensity," said Kluber, who became the first Series pitcher to strike out eight batters in the first three innings.

In a matchup between the teams with baseball's longest championship droughts, the Indians scored twice in the first off October ace Jon Lester.

Perez drove in four runs with a fourth-inning solo shot and a three-run drive in the eighth against Hector Rondon, becoming the first Cleveland player and the only No. 9 batter to homer twice in a Series game.

"I've come a long ways," said Perez, who has three home runs in 27 at-bats during the postseason after hitting three in 153 during the regular season.

Francisco Lindor added three hits as the Indians improved to 8-1 this postseason. Cleveland manager Terry Francona is 9-0 in the Series, including sweeps by his Boston teams in 2004 and `07.

The Game 1 winner has taken the title in the last six Series and 17 of 19.

"I have no concerns," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It's the first game. I'm fine, we're fine."

Trevor Bauer, trying to come back from a sliced pinkie caused by a freak drone accident, starts Game 2 for the Indians on Wednesday night against Jake Arrieta. Because the forecast called for an increased chance of rain later in the evening, Major League Baseball took the extraordinary step of moving up the first pitch by an hour to 7:08 p.m.

Kluber painted the outside corner, and 24 of his 59 strikes were called by plate umpire Larry Vanover. Twelve batters were caught looking, including seven Cubs.

"I think his ball was moving too much today," said Perez, Cleveland's catcher. "We got guys off balance the whole night."

Kluber combined with Miller and Cody Allen to fan 15, and Chicago went 2 for 15 with 10 strikeouts with runners on base.

With the Indians hoping for their first title since 1948 and the Cubs seeking their first since 1908, Lester stumbled in the opening inning.

Cleveland loaded the bases with two outs off Lester, who had been 3-0 with an 0.43 ERA in three Series starts. Jose Ramirez had a run-scoring swinging bunt single and Brandon Guyer was hit by a pitch. Perez connected in the fourth for a 3-0 lead.

Teams that combined for 174 seasons of futility, America's biggest droughts since the Great Plains' Dust Bowl of the 1930s, captivated even many non-baseball fans.

On a night of civic pride, LeBron James and the NBA's Cavaliers received their championship rings next door prior to their season opener, and Cleveland hosted a World Series opener for the first time.

The Cubs had not played in the Series since five weeks after Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender ending World War II.

Kluber, whose win in the All-Star Game gave the AL home-field advantage on the Series, improved to 3-1 in the postseason and lowered his ERA to a sparkling 0.74.

He was pitching on six days' rest, and his two-seam fastball was darting through the strike zone. Kluber struck out nine in six innings and walked none

Kyle Schwarber, making a surprise return in his first big league game since tearing knee ligaments on April 7, doubled off the right-field wall in the fourth -- a drive kept in by a stiff wind on a 50-degree night. Kluber then got Javier Baez to fly out.

Zobrist's leadoff double in the seventh finished Kluber, and Cleveland loaded the bases with no outs against Miller on Schwarber's walk and Baez's single. Pinch-hitter Willson Contreras flied to Rajai Davis in short center, and Davis threw home rather than double up Schwarber, who had strayed far off second.

Using his intimidating slider, Miller struck out Addison Russell and David Ross to escape the jam, then fanned Schwarber to strand runners at the corners in the eighth, his 46th pitch. Miller has thrown 20 scoreless innings in postseason play, including 13 2/3 innings with 24 strikeouts this year.

Allen completed Cleveland's fourth postseason shutout and second in a row.

Ramirez also had three hits each for the Indians, who beat Toronto in the ALCS despite hitting just .168. Zobrist had three hit for the Cubs.

Lester gave up three runs, six hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings, and was rattled by Vanover's calls, barking at the umpire in the third, then stopping for a discussion at the inning's end.

Up next
While Arrieta went 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA during the regular season, he struggled to a 5.01 ERA in his final four starts. He allowed four runs over five innings in Game 3 of the NLCS.

Bauer lasted only two outs in his ALCS when his pinkie, cut in a drone accident, began bleeding.

They're back
Dexter Fowler took a called third strike from Kluber leading off the game, becoming the first Cubs player to bat in the Series since Don Johnson hit into a game-ending forceout against Detroit's Hal Newhouser in Game 7 in 1945.

Take a seat
Chicago benched right fielder Jason Heyward, in a 2-for-28 postseason slump, and started Chris Coghlan.