As Phillies are finding out, hitting is hard

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As Phillies are finding out, hitting is hard

Charlie Manuel was telling a story earlier this week. He’s good at that. He has a lot of stories from a lot of places that fit a lot of different situations.
 
This particular story, like so many of the others, was about hitting. He was talking about being a hitting coach and helping guys in the minors and majors find their swings. He rattled off a few names, as he is wont to do, but Manuel was quick to reinforce the central theme of the yarn: Hitting coaches don’t actually hit. The players have to do that for themselves.
 
“Hitting is hard,” Manuel said simply. “If you think you can get up there and hit, you ought to try it sometime. Really. I’m sure [Albert] Pujols' start last year, he didn’t intend that. No one intends to get off to a bad start. Human nature still plays the game. You can break down all the stats you want, all the scouting reports I go over…you can have all those stats sitting there, but human nature still plays the game and human nature is still up there hitting.”
 
Hitting is hard. The Phillies know that all too well.
 
The Phillies lost to the Pirates, 6-4, at Citizens Bank Park Thursday. For the second straight game, the bullpen imploded. For the second straight game, the Phils failed to hit in crucial situations when it mattered most.
 
“We’re not getting it done and we have to score more runs,” Manuel said. “We’re in a period now where we have to hit more. Our guys know that.”
 
In the first three games against the Pirates, the Phillies left 23 runners on base. On Thursday, they stranded another five. In Hollywood-ized combat movies, no one ever gets left behind. Perhaps these Phillies aren’t cinephiles.
 
“Obviously we’re not going to capitalize on every opportunity,” Chase Utley said. “The more opportunities you have, the better chance you have. But it’s time to start capitalizing.”
 
It is time. Probably past time. Because while it is only April, and while the weather has yet to warm up, the games count, and they haven’t gone all that well so far. That has a lot to do with the hitters.

The bats, while not exactly missing this season, have been inconsistent. The Phils have scored three or fewer runs in 11 of their last 14 games. They are 5-9 over that stretch.
 
They’ve already been shut out twice at home. That’s the same number of zeros they posted at CBP all of last year.
 
They have grounded into more double plays than any National League team, and they’re third on that front in all of baseball.
 
They entered Thursday’s game with various collective team-batting stats that ran from mediocre to somewhere south of that. They were 17th in Major League Baseball in average, 20th in slugging percentage, 22nd in on-base percentage, 22nd in runs and 23rd in RBIs.

When he was asked if the team was pressing a little and perhaps trying too hard, Utley said “that’s the nature of the beast” and added “we just have to let it come to us.”
 
It was impressive, smashing two clichés into one short statement. He wasn’t alone there. Maybe, before games, the players get together, Bull Durham-style, and go over all the well-worn talking points they plan to regurgitate like masticated cud.
 
“At some point, it’s cliché, but it’s bound to turn,” Ryan Howard said. “Sooner or later, it all evens itself out.”
 
Again, impressive stuff, stitching together those tired thoughts, though he shouldn’t telegraph the cliché by actually mentioning it’s a cliché. Better to just let it hang in the air like some unpleasant odor.
 
Lame language choices aside, the Phils better hope Utley and Howard are right. They’d better hope the game starts coming to them and things turn and even out. Because, while it’s only April, while it’s still early, it won’t be for long.

The Phils are 9-14. They have lost three in a row. They haven’t been above .500 yet this year.  And for the second straight April, they are assured of beginning the season with a losing month. They can still dig out of this hole – provided they don’t keep making it deeper. But that’s the danger here, that eventually they’ll look up and find they’re too far buried to climb back to relevance.
 
“When you get 60, 70, 80 at-bats and there’s hardly no production there, that can’t be good,” Manuel said. “Really. I’m leery. That grabs my attention.”
 
His and everyone else’s.

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Bats need to stay hot vs. Charlie Morton, MLB's best offense

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Bats need to stay hot vs. Charlie Morton, MLB's best offense

Phillies (34-63) vs. Astros (66-33)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

After a 13-4 shellacking by the AL-best Astros last night, the Phillies look to rebound in Game 2 tonight.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Well that was ugly...
Monday night’s loss was ugly. Words don’t do it justice. So take a look at this tweet instead.

That local hero may need to grow a third hand for tonight’s game, because it doesn’t get any easier for the Phillies tonight. 

It’s Nick Pivetta’s turn to try and cool the Astros’ unstoppable offense. The Phillies may catch a break with All-Star outfielder George Springer — hitting .311 with 27 homers on the year — left Monday’s game in the third inning with a sore quad muscle and may sit out tonight. Superstar shortstop Carlos Correa remains on the DL. But Jose Altuve is hitting .507 — yes that’s a five — in July, so Pivetta has his work cut out for him.

Pivetta flashed his big-league potential with two dominant starts at the beginning of July, but he has come back down to earth in his last two outings, highlighted by a five-inning start in Milwaukee where he gave up nine runs. The rookie’s success came with his high number of fly ball outs. Pivetta was able to get hitters to pop up on weak fly balls and keep them off balance. In his first two July starts, Pivetta had a 25 to 8 fly ball to ground ball ratio, while giving up just four runs in that span. Over his last two starts, he has given up 12 runs while inducing just 17 fly balls and 17 groundouts. Fortunately for Pivetta, the Astros have the sixth-most fly outs in MLB this year.

2. But, there is hope 
There is hope for the Phillies, though. Before last night’s debacle, the team was on a bit of a hot streak. The Phillies are 4-2 in their last six games, while averaging 5.7 runs since the All-Star break. That’s tied for the seventh-most runs scored in all of MLB during that span. That’s quite an improvement from 29th before the All-Star break. Last night’s loss ended a seven-game streak of at least five runs scored for the Phillies. Something they haven’t done in a single season since 2005.

The Phillies will need to keep up the hot bats to keep up with the Astros tonight.

3. Morton returns
And to do that, the Phillies will have to hit against former Phillies’ great Charlie Morton. Don’t remember the salt man? That’s probably because he only pitched in four games for the Phils in 2016 before tearing his left hamstring in April and missed the remainder of the season. 

Now he’s with the Astros, and has excelled in the back end of the rotation. In 13 starts, the 33-year-old is 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA. However, he is averaging three walks allowed per start, something the Phillies’ should look to capitalize on if Morton struggled with his command early.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: 
Odubel Herrera has really turned his season around as of late. Herrera is back to his All-Star 2016 form, hitting .524 over the last week with four doubles and seven runs scored. Perhaps most noticeable is Herrera's newfound plate discipline. No longer flailing wildly at pitches in the dirt, Herrera has worked five walks in his last 21 at-bats. 

Astros: It's impossible not to mention Altuve here. His insane month of July (.507/.554/1.314) has made him the AL MVP favorite. Standing at just 5-foot-6, Altuve can do it all, including hit for power (15 home runs in 2017). 

5. This and that
• Charlie Morton's 4.18 ERA would be second-best among Phils' starters. Aaron Nola leads the rotation with a 3.38 ERA.

• Maikel Franco's recent hot streak has helped revive the Phillies' offense. Franco is hitting .300 since the All-Star break with as many walks (5) as strikeouts.

• The Astros have a 17-game cushion in the AL West. The Phillies are 25 games back of the Nationals in the NL East.

Phillies prove no match for AL-best Astros in series opener

Phillies prove no match for AL-best Astros in series opener

BOX SCORE

A lot has changed since the Houston Astros last came to Philadelphia in 2014. Back then the Astros were a rebuilding team on their way to a 92-loss season after reaching triple-digit losses the previous three seasons.

Now, the Astros' rebuild is complete and they have the best record (66-33) in the American League and the second best in the majors after the Los Angeles Dodgers (68-31).

The Astros have a powerhouse offense that ranks first in the majors in runs (594), hits (1,105), doubles (222), homers (165), batting average (.293) and OPS (.863).

Those numbers burned the eyes of Phillies manager Pete Mackanin when he got a look at them before Monday's game.

"When I look at their stat sheet and look at all their numbers, I really don't want to look at it," he said. "But once again, good pitching will stop good hitting, so if we can get good outings from some of our pitchers, we have a chance."

The Phillies did not get a good outing from their starting pitcher, nor did they get good work from the bullpen, as they lost Monday's series opener, 13-4 (see Instant Replay).

The Astros pounded out 18 hits and eight of them were for extra bases.

And they did all that damage without star shortstop Carlos Correa (.320/20/67). He is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his thumb. Also, All-Star George Springer (.311/27/66) left the game in the third inning with a sore quad muscle.

So it could have been worse if the Astros had played with a full deck.

"We’ve been playing pretty well recently and these kinds of games happen," said Mackanin, whose club is 5-5 after the All-Star break. "Unfortunately, this was one of those games.

"Houston is as good a team as we've seen. They have nine guys with double-digit home runs. They are a real aggressive team, one of the best, if not the best, that we’ve seen. They have aggressive hitters. You can't make mistakes against them. Early in the count, they hack at those mistakes. They don’t strike out a lot.

"It was noticeable that they go up there ready to hit every pitch. They're not taking to get a look at the pitcher. If you make a mistake over the plate, they look to hurt you, to do damage."

The Phillies trailed 12-1 in the seventh inning before rookie Nick Williams tripled home three runs. Williams has three triples and 18 RBIs in 72 at-bats with the big club.

Cesar Hernandez had three hits and Odubel Herrera added a pair to raise his July batting average to .364 (24 for 66).

"Other than that, there weren't a lot of bright spots," Mackanin said.

Phillies starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, pitching against his former team, worked into the fourth inning, but had his outing cut short by a one-hour, 52-minute rain delay. Velasquez might not have pitched deep into the game even in good weather conditions. He struggled with location and did not use his secondary pitches effectively. He gave up a pair of home runs (to Brian McCann and Alex Bregman) in the second inning, both on fastballs.

Mackanin was rather blunt when asked how he thought Velasquez pitched.

"He gave up six hits, two home runs, in three innings," Mackanin said. "His velocity was OK, but if you don't locate against a team like this, you're going to get hurt."

Velasquez walked three. One of those walks turned into a run.

"They were hunting fastballs," Velasquez said. "Maybe if I utilized my secondary pitches more I would have slowed their bats down and protected my fastball better. They hammer mistakes.

"I probably could have done a better job if I executed. Correa was out of the lineup. If he was in there he probably would have done some damage, too. This team is hot. They're in first place for a reason. They're very selective. They are in the zone. They're locked in."

Ricardo Pinto picked up Velasquez when the game resumed in the top of the fourth inning. He was tagged for seven hits and six runs in 1 1/3 inning. Three of the runs were unearned.