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.

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

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ATLANTA — The Phillies and Atlanta Braves are both rebuilding teams that have looked to acquire as much pitching as possible over the last few seasons.

The Phillies added Nick Pivetta in the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to Washington two years ago. The Braves picked up Luiz Gohara from Seattle back in January.

If both pitchers continue to develop, there's a chance they could face each other in a National League division race someday. 

On Sunday, they squared off in a battle of teams playing out the string, but the intensity of the matchup was good. That can happen in the penultimate weekend of the season. After all, impressions can be made right up until the final pitch of the season. Players are always auditioning, especially rookies hoping to win spots next season.

Pivetta, 24, made a very nice showing. He out-pitched Gohara in helping the Phillies salvage one game of the three-game series against the Braves with a 2-0 win (see observations).

Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr keyed a just-enough Phillies' offense with a solo homer and an RBI double and the bullpen triumvirate of Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris combined for three scoreless innings to seal the shutout.

Pivetta pitched six shutout innings, walked one and struck out four. He gave up five hits. It's been an up-and-down season for the rookie right-hander. There's been a lot of on-the-job training and a few bruisings. He is 7-10 with a 6.26 ERA in 25 starts. He has allowed just two runs in 12 innings over his last two starts, so he's finishing the season on a high note.

"The key to his outing today was that he was throwing all his pitches for strikes," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His breaking ball and his changeup, he really did a good job with them, throwing them ahead in the count and behind in the count, so that was key.

"This is the place to learn. You can have a lot of success in the minor leagues but when you get up here it's a different animal. The best place to learn is at the big-league level and take your lumps and learn from them. Now, if you have too many guys like that you don’t win a lot of games, so you can afford to have one or maybe two guys in the rotation that are feeling their way through it, but not more than that."

Forced to the majors by injuries in the rotation early in the season, Pivetta has often talked about the learning experience his first year in the majors has been.

He was happy to talk about getting a victory Sunday.

"It's been nice," he said. "I've settled down a little the last two starts. Today, I just tried to do the right things — get ahead of hitters. And the guys played great defense behind me.

"Even when I had runners on base, I was able to attack the hitters the way I wanted and I didn't put too much pressure on myself."

That's not always easy for a rookie pitcher in a close game. Pivetta's ability to stay cool and pitch around baserunners in the fifth and sixth innings was a sign of his improvement. He will have one more start before the season ends and is looking to build on two good ones and go into the offseason with a healthy dose of confidence. He will be a candidate for a spot in the rotation next spring.

Sunday's victory left the Phillies at 62-94. They need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses. That once seemed to be a certainty, but they have played well since the All-Star break, recording a 33-36 record since then. They were 29-58 before the break.

Young players such as Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins have come up from the minors and given the Phils a lift in recent weeks. The bullpen has also improved with Ramos, Morgan, Neris and Luis Garcia (before Saturday night) pitching well. Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning Sunday. He has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Neris is 18 for 18 in save opportunities since June 28.

The only run that the Phils scored against Gohara came in the fifth when Franco smacked a first-pitch changeup into the left-field seats for his 21st homer. The pitch was on the middle-half of the plate, Franco's happy zone.

Franco is hitting .308 with three homers and seven RBIs since J.P. Crawford came up and applied a little competitive heat.

Franco said that's coincidence, that he's focused only on what he needs to do to get better.

"I think when those young guys come up it always creates an energy spurt in everybody," Mackanin said. "For whatever reason, if Maikel is having a good September, I hope it carries through for five or six months next year. One month does not a good year make. Hopefully, he'll have a better approach and he's going to be more successful."

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

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ATLANTA — Phillies rookie Nick Pivetta outpitched Atlanta Braves rookie Luiz Gohara Sunday afternoon as the Phils salvaged the final game of a three-game series with a 2-0 win at steamy SunTrust Park.
 
Maikel Franco smacked his 21st homer and Aaron Altherr had an RBI double for the Phillies' two runs.
 
Pivetta (7-10) pitched six shutout innings and the bullpen did the rest.
 
The Phillies ended up with a 13-6 record against Atlanta this season, their best against any team.
 
• Pivetta has mostly struggled in 25 starts in his rookie season, but he's also had some very nice outings where his potential has really shined. This was one of them. His last start, in which he gave up two runs in six innings against the Dodgers, was a good one, too. So the right-hander seems to be finishing on a high note. He will have one more start before the end of the season. In a perfect world, Pivetta would have gotten more time at Triple A this season, but there was a need in the majors. Ultimately, he should benefit from his baptism by fire.
 
• Atlanta lefty Gohara was very good in his fourth big-league start. The 21-year-old from Brazil gave up just five hits, walked two and struck out nine. The only run he gave up came on Franco's homer.
 
• Pivetta did a good job pitching around trouble. He got two outs in the second inning after an error by Franco put a runner on second. He also pitched around sloppy infield play in the fifth. In the sixth, Pivetta knocked down a ball back to the box but was unable to start a double play. He stayed calm and got two outs to get out of the inning.
 
• The Phillies took a 1-0 lead on a solo homer by Franco in the top of the fifth. Franco turned on a first-pitch changeup from Gohara. The pitch was on the inside half of the plate — right in Franco's happy zone. Franco pulls off pitches away in the zone, but he kills mistakes inside. Franco will work on this flaw in winter ball this season (see story).
 
• Altherr doubled home an important insurance run for the Phillies in the eighth inning. Altherr has 61 RBIs on the season and 27 have come in the seventh inning or later.
 
• Good job by the Phillies' bullpen. Edubray Ramos and Adam Morgan pitched scoreless ball in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively. Morgan has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Hector Neris survived two hits in the ninth and picked up the save. He is perfect on is last 18 chances since June 28.

• The Phillies' first two hits of the game were singles to right field and both runners, Cesar Hernandez and Jorge Alfaro, were out trying to stretch at second base. Braves rightfielder Nick Markakis made two perfect throws. Hernandez needed to come out of the box quicker.
 
• The Phillies have a 35-40 record at home. They will play their final six games of the season at home beginning Monday night with the opener of a three-game series against the NL East champion Washington Nationals. Aaron Nola (12-10, 3.56) pitches against right-hander A.J. Cole (2-5, 4.43) on Monday night. Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14) opposes lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night. Mark Leiter Jr. (3-6, 4.69) and right-hander Tanner Roark (13-10, 4.41) close out the series Wednesday night. The Phillies need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses.