On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone

ap-maikel-franco.jpg

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.”

Best of MLB: Josh Donaldson mashes 3 home runs to lead Blue Jays past Twins

Best of MLB: Josh Donaldson mashes 3 home runs to lead Blue Jays past Twins

TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson had his first career three-homer game, Troy Tulowitzki also went deep and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Minnesota Twins 9-6 on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep.

Donaldson hit a solo homer off Kyle Gibson in the second, then delivered a go-ahead, two-run blast off Pat Light (0-1) in the seventh.

Dozens of fans tossed hats onto the field to celebrate the home run hat trick after Donaldson, the AL MVP in 2015, hit a solo shot off Alex Wimmers in the eighth. Groundskeepers and even the Blue Jays mascot helped clear the hats away.

Donaldson's fourth multi-homer game this season and the 10th of his career also marked the 17th three-homer game in the majors this season.

Jose Bautista had his first three-hit game of the season for the AL East-leading Blue Jays.

Minnesota lost its season-worst 10th straight. The Twins have lost seven straight in Toronto.

Scott Feldman (7-4) earned the win by getting two outs in the seventh. Jason Grilli worked the eighth and Roberto Osuna finished (see full recap). 

Pirates win 8th straight on road, sweep Brewers 3-1
MILWAUKEE -- Ivan Nova threw six sharp innings before leaving early because of a hurting left hamstring and the Pittsburgh Pirates hit three solo homers to rally past the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 on Sunday for their eighth straight road victory.

John Jaso and Gregory Polanco each homered in the sixth off Brewers starter Chase Anderson (7-11) to complete Pittsburgh's first sweep at Miller Park since 2004. Starling Marte added a solo shot in the eighth.

Nova (4-0) retired 10 of his final 11 batters after allowing Jonathan Villar's solo homer in the third. He scattered three hits and struck out four before being pinch hit for in the seventh.

Tony Watson pitched a clean ninth for his 10th save in 13 opportunities (see full recap).

Archer strikes out 10, Rays hit 3 HRs in 10-4 win vs Astros
HOUSTON -- Chris Archer struck out 10 in seven innings, Corey Dickerson hit a three-run homer and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Houston Astros 10-4 on Sunday.

Matt Duffy and Nick Franklin also went deep for the last-place Rays, who have homered in 21 of their last 24 games.

Houston, in the hunt for an AL wild card, had won three straight.

Archer (8-17) gave up three runs and four hits with two walks. With his strikeout of A.J. Reed in the sixth, the right-hander joined David Price and James Shields as the only Tampa Bay pitchers with multiple 200-strikeout seasons.

The Rays jumped out early against Doug Fister.

Fister (12-9) allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, the fourth time in his past seven starts he has permitted four or more runs (see full recap). 

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- A.J. Ellis’ first game as a Phillie certainly went a lot better than Carlos Ruiz’s first game as a Dodger.

Ellis’ first hit with his new club helped the Phils salvage one game of a weekend series with the New York Mets on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies won it, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), behind a solid start from Vince Velasquez, excellent bullpen work and Ellis’ big hit, a tie-breaking, two-run double in the top of the seventh.

The Phillies had lost the first two games of the series by a combined score of 21-5. Their pitchers gave up eight homers in the first two games.

On Sunday, Velasquez and a quartet of relievers held the Mets to seven hits, all singles.

Ellis joined the Phillies just 24 hours earlier after being traded from the Dodgers on Thursday. He had been with that club his whole career.

Ruiz, of course, had been with the Phillies his whole career.

Ruiz’s first game with the Dodgers did not go nearly as smooth. The veteran catcher had trouble handling the pitches of closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning Friday night and that contributed to the Dodgers blowing a one-run lead and losing to the Chicago Cubs in 10 innings.

Leaving the Dodgers was difficult and emotional for Ellis. He was able to bury himself in the game Sunday and came away feeling pretty good.

“It’s just great to be playing baseball again,” he said, standing in front of his locker, a blue Dodgers equipment bag (that will soon be swapped out for a Phillies bag) at his feet. “You kind of lose yourself in the competition and then just play again.

“Regardless of what’s happened in the last four days, it feels good to drive in runs, feels good to help put your team ahead and help contribute to a team win.”

During his 24 or so hours with the Phillies, Ellis has immersed himself in learning a new staff of pitchers. He caught starters Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson in the bullpen before Saturday’s game and warmed up several relievers during that game.

On Sunday morning, he arrived at Citi Field, saw his name in the lineup and immediately began prepping to catch Velasquez, the hardest-thrower on the Phillies’ starting staff.

Velasquez bounced back from three poor outings in which he gave up 19 runs in 17 1/3 innings and held a hot Mets lineup to a run over five innings. The only negative was that Velasquez could not pitch deeper into the game because his command was poor and needed 103 pitches to complete the five innings.

Nonetheless, Ellis, who was the personal catcher for Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, liked what he saw of Velasquez.

“His pitch count got elevated the first two innings and he was able to grind through the last three,” Ellis said. “The stuff is electric. He has so many weapons, so many options. When he keeps growing and keeps polishing that gift up, it’s going to be really, really special.

“So I’m excited to be able to continue to work with him, excited to work with him and (pitching coach) Bob McClure and (No. 1 catcher) Cameron Rupp, kind of talk to them about things, things he sees, things we see, and together we can build a plan for him going forward in his career.”

Two things are going to help the 24-year-old Velasquez reach his potential.

First is good health. He’s had arm problems in the past and there remain concerns about his long-term durability. That’s why the Phillies are closely monitoring his workload as this season winds down.

Second is command, control, economy of pitches – whatever you want to call it. Velasquez needs to be more efficient. Too many times he’s left games in the middle innings because of a high pitch count.

“Definitely,” he responded when asked if lowering his pitch counts and working deeper into games was the key to his improvement. “It’s going to help the longevity, it saves the bullpen, it helps out everybody. Not just on my end, but the whole team in general.

“And,” he joked, “then I can also work on my swing by getting some more at-bats.”

Despite the high pitch count, Velasquez walked just one. He struck out seven. He is up to 129 innings for the season. That includes five innings in a rehab game at Double A Reading. The Phillies will look to keep him at about 150 innings for the season. That could be three, four or five more starts, depending on how long the right-hander lasts. He’s averaged just over five innings in his starts this season.

“I think that would be the right move,” Velasquez said of the 150-inning target.

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Mets 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Mets 1

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK – The Phillies salvaged one win on an otherwise lost weekend in Queens when they beat the New York Mets, 5-1, on Sunday afternoon.
 
A.J. Ellis, acquired from the Dodgers on Thursday in the Carlos Ruiz deal, had the game’s big-hit, a two-run double to break a 1-1 tie in the seventh. It was his first hit with the club.
 
The Phillies lost the first two games of the series by a combined score of 21-5.
 
The win left the Phils at 60-70 for the season. They are three wins shy of last year’s majors-low total of 63.
 
Starting pitching report
Vince Velasquez gave up just one run, but only lasted five innings because he threw 103 pitches. Despite the high pitch count, Velasquez walked just one. He struck out seven. All in all, it was an improvement from his previous three starts when he allowed 19 runs in 17⅓ innings.
 
Mets right-hander Robert Gsellman gave up four runs in six-plus innings in his first big-league start. He allowed just one run through his first six innings but failed to get an out in being charged with three runs in the seventh.
 
Bullpen report
The Phillies' bullpen was excellent.
 
David Hernandez pitched a scoreless sixth inning. Edubray Ramos followed with a scoreless seventh. Hector Neris notched a scoreless eighth and Jeanmar Gomez closed it out.
 
For the Mets, Hansel Robles was brought on to face Ellis with the bases loaded in the seventh and promptly gave up a game-changing double.
 
At the plate
Tommy Joseph, Aaron Altherr and Jimmy Paredes all singled to load the bases for Ellis in the seventh. Parades doubled home the Phillies’ first run in fourth.
 
Health check
Double A Reading outfielder Roman Quinn is back on the disabled list after suffering a concussion Saturday night. Quinn recently returned from a stint on the DL with an oblique injury. His status for the Eastern League playoffs and a possible September call up is unclear.
 
Mets shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera left the game in the first inning with a sore left knee. He appeared to injure himself avoiding a tag at first base. Cabrera had three homers in the first two games of the series.
 
ICYMI
Pitcher Jeremy Hellickson will remain with the Phillies for the rest of the season (see story).
 
Up next
The Phillies return home Monday night to open a three-game series against the Washington Nationals. Here are the pitching matchups:
 
Monday night – RHP Jake Thompson (1-3, 9.78) vs. RHP Tanner Roark (13-7, 2.99)
 
Tuesday night – RHP Jerad Eickhoff (9-12, 3.87) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (14-7, 2.92)
 
Wednesday night – LHP Adam Morgan (1-8, 6.50) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (9-9, 4.25)