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.

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."