On the Pharm: Maikel Franco finds comfort zone

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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.”

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick on Saturday night made his fourth rehab appearance in Triple A during Lehigh Valley's 13-1 rout of the Louisville Bats in Allentown.

Kendrick went 1 for 5 with a run scored and three strikeouts. He also grounded into a double play and left two runners in scoring position.

It was his second rehab game playing third base. He played third during his appearance in the IronPigs' 8-4 loss Thursday to the Indianapolis Indians. He was 0 for 1 in three plate appearances with a run scored and was hit by a pitch twice (see story).

The Phillies' plan for Kendrick was to have him play a minimum four games at Lehigh Valley. He played left field in two games and third base twice. Pete Mackanin said Wednesday that Kendrick would also get a game at first base but he hasn't gotten a game at first yet.

There is a chance Kendrick could be recalled Sunday before the Phillies’ series finale against the Cincinnati Reds depending on how he feels.

Kendrick has been sidelined since April 15 with an oblique strain. In 10 games before the injury, Kendrick went 13 for 39 (.333) with five extra-base hits and four walks while exclusively playing left field.

Best of MLB: Trout's 16th home run guides Angels past Marlins

Best of MLB: Trout's 16th home run guides Angels past Marlins

MIAMI -- Mike Trout hit his major league-leading 16th homer, and the Los Angeles Angels reached the .500 mark for the 12th time this season by beating Miami 5-2 Saturday.

Trout's first-inning homer into the beer garden in left field was estimated at 443 feet, which pleased a fair portion of the crowd at Marlins Park.

"Hate Fish Love Trout," read a sign held by an Angels fans.

J.C. Ramirez (5-3) limited Miami to an unearned run in seven innings and benefited from excellent defense. Bud Norris, who tweaked his right knee and left Friday's game after throwing only three pitches, gave up a homer to Marcell Ozuna in the ninth (see full recap).

Strasburg K's career-high 15, Nats down Padres 3-0
WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg dominated San Diego with a career-high 15 strikeouts while allowing three hits over seven innings as the Washington Nationals beat the Padres 3-0 on Saturday.

Strasburg (6-1) singled and scored Washington's first run on Bryce Harper's RBI grounder in the third inning. Michael A. Taylor hit a two-run homer for the second consecutive game.

San Diego's lineup offered little resistance against Strasburg the day after Max Scherzer dominated the Padres with 13 strikeouts in Washington's 5-1 win.

Strasburg struck out the side in the third and sixth and had at least two in the first six innings.

The right-hander previously struck out 14 batters twice including his Major League debut on June 8, 2010. He set a personal best by setting down Franchy Cordero in the seventh (see full recap).

Yankees held hitless into 6th by Cotton, but beat A's 3-2
NEW YORK -- Oakland rookie Jharel Cotton held the Yankees hitless until Matt Holliday launched a two-run homer with two outs in the sixth inning that sent resurgent CC Sabathia and New York to a 3-2 victory Saturday.

Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was in the right spot for a pair of key catches to boost the AL East leaders, who won with just two hits.

Sabathia (5-2) has won three straight starts for the first time since April 2013. The 36-year-old lefty pitched into the seventh and struck out nine.

Dellin Betances escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the eighth, an inning that included the ejections of A's hitter Jed Lowrie and manager Bob Melvin for arguing strike three calls. Betances closed for his fifth save.

Cotton (3-5) was promoted from Triple-A Nashville before the game. He began the season in the Athletics' rotation but was sent down to the minors May 11 to refine his game (see full recap).

Bautista hits 3-run HR, Blue Jays beat Rangers 3-1
TORONTO -- Jose Bautista hit a three-run homer that backed Marco Estrada, and the Toronto Blue Bays beat the Texas Rangers 3-1 Saturday and matched their longest winning streak this season at five.

Shin-soo Choo homered into the center-field party deck on the first pitch of the game from Marco Estrada, but Bautista hit a two-out drive in the fifth, his eighth home run in May after one in April.

Estrada (4-2) allowed four hits in six innings to win for the third time in four starts. Aaron Loup got one out in the seventh, Ryan Tepera finished the inning and Joe Smith worked the eighth. Roberto Osuna threw a perfect ninth for his ninth save, completing a six-hitter.

Darvish (5-3) gave up three runs and five hits in six innings. He had been 4-0 with a 2.54 ERA in six starts since losing April 18 at Oakland. Texas has lost five in a row for the first time this year (see full recap).