Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Vince Velasquez might have had the best outing of his season Wednesday night, but the Phillies' bullpen delivered against a tough Miami Marlins lineup. 

Hector Neris nearly had a 1-2-3 inning until Adeiny Hechavarria whacked in a run off a single.

But Neris struck out Derek Dietrich swinging to end the game, 7-4, and extend the Phillies' winning streak to five games (see game story).

"We're going to continue to do the same thing we've been doing," relief pitcher Joely Rodriguez said. "We're not going to change nothing because we're doing well now."

Velasquez got the Phillies to the seventh inning, but manager Pete Mackanin pulled the right-hander once Hechavarria smacked a double off him that knocked in J.T. Realmuto to make the game 5-3.

Rodriguez replaced Velasquez to face Ichiro Suzuki. He retired Suzuki on a line drive to Maikel Franco and got another huge out on Dee Gordon to get the Phillies out of a squeeze late in the game.

"Joely has done a great job his last five outings, that's a real pleasant surprise," Mackanin said. "We knew that he had the ability to potentially do that. All he has to do with his stuff is throw strikes in the situations that he comes in. And he can be very effective as he should tonight. That's a real bonus for us."

In his past six games, including Wednesday night, Rodriguez has pitched six straight scoreless games. He also has a combined four strikeouts and threw less than nine pitches in four of those games.  

Prior to the six-game streak, Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs and 10 hits in four appearances, but he said he's been working on his mechanics.

"I have more confidence to throw the ball to home plate with my glove in the chest," Rodriguez said. "That helped me a lot to throw the ball and have a more consistent strike zone." 

Even with Rodriguez getting the Phillies out of the seventh inning, they still had to overcome the Marlins' top of the lineup in the eighth. Miami ranks seventh in the majors in runs per game with 4.78. 

Giancarlo Stanton was just starting to find his swing entering the game. The Marlins' cleanup hitter was 9 for 17 over his last four games, including four homers and seven RBIs. 

But when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the top of eighth, Stanton grounded out to Freddy Galvis to retire the side. Stanton was 0 for 3 on the night in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while Benoit threw five strikes on eight pitches in the eighth. 

"We are a group in the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "We talk to each other, support each other and do the best we can when we go to the mound and try to help the team get a win."