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.

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The pathway for Andrew Knapp to make the Phillies' opening day roster as the backup catcher was cleared way back in November when he was added to the 40-man roster.

The job all but became Knapp's on Monday when the team released two veteran catchers who were not on the 40-man roster. When Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday were let go, Knapp became one of just two catchers in camp, the other being starter Cameron Rupp (see story).

So it's pretty obvious that the 25-year-old Knapp will open the season with the big club -- even though nothing will become official until rosters are filed with the commissioner's office this weekend.

"Obviously there are four or five days left," Knapp said. "I'm just going to keep trying to make good impressions and try to win a job. I'm keeping my head down, trying not to think about it too much."

Knapp was the Phillies' second-round draft pick out of Cal-Berkeley in 2013. He has never played in the majors.

"It would be a dream come true," he said. "Everyone hopes to get called up at some point but to make a team on opening day would be pretty special and it would be the best moment in my career so far."

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin acknowledged that Knapp would probably make the club.

Mackanin would like to have the rest of his roster in order over the next day or two.

"As soon as possible," he said. "Because the last four or five games I'd like to play almost as if it were a season -- using the bullpen that way, using the bench in a certain way, seeing what it looks like, our bench guys, all our hitters. We just don't want to make a bad decision so we're just going to string it out as long as we can."

Roster questions that still must be answered:

How many spots remain on the bench? Andres Blanco, Aaron Altherr and Knapp are set. Will the Phillies go with a five-man bench, meaning there are two openings? Or will they go with a four-man bench, which opens the possibility for carrying eight relievers instead of the customary seven?

If the Phils go with a five-man bench, they will pick two from a group of four players that includes Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi and Jesmuel Valentin. The hunch is Coghlan will make the club, leaving the final spot down to Nava or Stassi. All three of those players are non-roster so the team would have to open a spot on the 40-man roster to accommodate them. Valentin has impressed -- and is already on the 40 -- but he might benefit from playing every day at Triple A.

Mackanin praised the work of Coghlan and Stassi.

"Stassi has obviously made a great impression, mainly because, not necessarily because of his results, but the fact that he had a lot of quality at-bats," Mackanin said. "It looks like he can handle making adjustments to the different pitchers and different situations. He seemed to handle left-handers well. He made a good impression, as has Coghlan. Nava has also been consistent throughout the spring."

If the Phils go with a four-man bench, Coghlan might be the only one to make the club. He is due a $100,000 retention bonus on Wednesday. If he wasn't going to make the team, he might be gone by now.

Going with a four-man bench would minimize the subtractions that the team would have to make from the 40-man roster. In that case, only one spot would have to be cleared.

A four-man bench means the Phillies could choose three relievers from a group of candidates that includes Adam Morgan, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Alec Asher and Cesar Ramos. All but Ramos is on the 40-man roster.

How will this all shake out?

More answers could be coming on Tuesday.

Phillies release Hanigan, Holaday; Andrew Knapp likely backup catcher

Phillies release Hanigan, Holaday; Andrew Knapp likely backup catcher

A week before the season opener, it appears Andrew Knapp has won the Phillies' backup catcher competition.

The Phils on Monday released Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday, two veterans battling with Knapp for the backup spot to Cameron Rupp.

Knapp, 25, hasn't had an impressive spring, going 7 for 38 (.184) with 16 strikeouts, but the move makes sense because he's young and has at least a chance to contribute to the Phillies in the future, unlike Hanigan and Holaday. Plus, catcher Jorge Alfaro and first baseman Rhys Hoskins will likely open the season at Triple A, meaning Knapp would not have had an everyday spot with the IronPigs.

Knapp had his best game of the spring at the right time Sunday, hitting a two-run homer and throwing out two runners on the bases (see story).

"It's pretty obvious he seems to be the guy," manager Pete Mackanin said of Knapp. "Nothing's written in stone but if you read between the lines, it pretty much tells you something about it. No secret plans or anything like that. It is what it is right now."

At 25, Knapp isn't really a prospect anymore but rather a player the Phillies want to see sink or swim at the big-league level.

"He's not going to get 500 at-bats, but one of the things you can look at is any exposure to the big-league scene is valuable toward anyone's development," Mackanin said. "Let's say Knapp gets 200 at-bats, it's worth his while and our while to judge him, to give him a sense of confidence or knowing what he's up against.

"In that regard playing in the big leagues, even in a part-time role, is important."

Knapp was the Phillies' second-round pick in 2013 out of the University of California. He broke out in 2015 by hitting .360 with a 1.050 OPS and more than an RBI per game in 241 plate appearances with Double A Reading.

Last season, the switch-hitting Knapp was an International League All-Star with Triple A Lehigh Valley, though he didn't have as impressive an offensive season, batting .266/.330/.390 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs.

"He's got a chance to be a pretty good hitter," Mackanin said. "And he's come along quite a ways defensively behind the plate to where I'm comfortable with him catching.

"Little by little he's shown improvement in the spring, even though he hasn't had the greatest spring offensively. He's had a lot of good at-bats and he's caught well."

Andres Blanco, Aaron Altherr and Knapp look like locks for the Phillies' bench. The final two bench spots are open with Brock Stassi, Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava and Jesmuel Valentin in the running (see story).

CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury contributed to this report.