For Phillies, beating up on Marlins is a must

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For Phillies, beating up on Marlins is a must

The Phillies enter the X Factor portion of their schedule when they travel to Miami for a three-game series against the Marlins on Friday night.

You know the story by now. Marlins ownership had another one of its infamous fire sales in November. Shortstop Jose Reyes, catcher John Buck and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle were traded away in a purge that reduced the team’s payroll by $60 million. The stripping down of the Marlins came a year after they spent lavishly on talent in preparation of their move into a new ballpark, and it created ill will among the fans/taxpayers who helped pay for that stadium.

“It’s not right, plain and simple,” Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said of the Marlins’ strip down.

In the wake of the controversial dismantling, the Marlins have been left with a JV team that has been forced to use light-hitting Phillies’ castoff Placido Polanco as a cleanup man in four of nine games. The Marlins, who have the worst record in the majors, have won just one of those nine games. They have scored just 16 runs and been shut out four times.

Despite winning two in a row, the Phillies are off to a middling start at 4-5. The Marlins are a team that the Phils could get well against in a hurry. But here’s the hitch: Every team in the NL East could profit against the Marlins this season. They are the division’s X Factor team. Beating up on them won’t guarantee a team’s winning the NL East, but it can certainly help.

“You’ve got to play them and you’ve got to beat them,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “They’re not going to roll over and give you anything. If they beat you, yeah, that could cause you a lot of problems in your division. I think right now, where they set and who they are -- if you think you’re going to win your division or go somewhere, you have to take care of your business against them.”

Washington and Atlanta has already taken care of some business against Miami. Both have posted an early-season three-game sweep of the Marlins. Now it’s the Phillies’ turn to see how much hay they can make in the first three of 19 games against Miami this season.

The Phils will send John Lannan, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay to the mound against Ricky Nolasco, rookie Jose Fernandez and Kevin Slowey in the series.

Plenty of good seats remain available.

The Marlins drew just 14,222 and 13,810 on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the two smallest crowds at their year-old stadium. They could get a bump when Cuban-born pitcher Fernandez starts against Hamels on Saturday night. The 20-year-old right-hander struck out eight Mets in five innings in his big-league debut Sunday. This weekend’s series finale will have a huge Phillies subplot as the struggling Halladay tries for the third time to pitch beyond the fifth inning.

Road-to-nowhere teams like the Marlins have given the Phillies problems in the past. Last year, the Phillies’ late run at an NL wild-card spot suffered a gaping wound when they lost three of four to 107-loss Houston, the worst team in the majors, in mid-September.

The Phillies have to expect to beat the Marlins.

But they can’t assume they will.

“Washington, Miami, New York, Atlanta -- we have to win all these games,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “You have to win your division games. On any given day, any team can beat another team. This is different than other sports. You saw what Houston did to us last year.

“We have to play good baseball, and we have to play with energy whether there’s four people in the stands or 40,000.”

The Marlins drew 34,439 on opening day, but not all of those fans had their happy, new-season faces on. There are hard feelings toward owner Jeffrey Loria, who has stripped down his club twice in a decade. One fan wore a shirt that said, Marlins baseball: Helping other teams get better since 1998. A couple of protesting fans were asked to leave.

Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t been so lucky. The Marlins’ mega-talent, who expressed his displeasure with the Marlins’ purge this winter, remains part of the team largely because he’s inexpensive at $537,000 this season. Stanton, 23, has averaged 37 homers and 86 RBIs the last two seasons. As his salary climbs, he could be the next big name out the door. And, yes, sources say the Phillies have let it be known that they’d like to talk to the Marlins once they put a For Sale sign on Stanton.

Rollins said the Marlins’ way of operating was a topic of conversation among Team USA players at the World Baseball Classic last month. Stanton was on that club and Rollins was able to take the young slugger’s temperature on the topic.

“He’s going to be OK,” Rollins said. “For his sake, I wish he was somewhere where he could shine and be a star. In a situation like that, the season can get long on you. But he’s going to be OK.”

Stanton hits third in the Marlins’ lineup, a challenging task without a formidable cleanup bat behind him (see story). He is off to a slow start, hitting just .167 (5 for 30) with two doubles, no homers and no RBIs.

The Phillies hope Stanton stays cold this weekend as they look to beat up on a team that they should beat up on.

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

NEW YORK -- Alec Asher’s two-seamer was nearly perfect against the Mets on Saturday night — even if the pitching line was attached to his name was decidedly less so.

The rookie exited after five innings with four unearned runs attached to his name — two Phillies’ throwing errors on playable ground balls will do that — but lowered his ERA to 1.66 in a 10-8 victory that was far, far closer than it needed to be.

Lost in the shuffle of the Phillies bullpen’s attempt at self-immolation was just how effective Asher’s newly-developed two-seam fastball was in the early innings against the Mets’ full lineup. The relatively slow pitch — it was sitting around 90 MPH Saturday — generated six popouts during his perfect first trip through the batting order.

“Being able to throw a pitch that’s not straight works wonders,” Asher said. “Last year, I didn’t really have success throwing the four-seam, so just adding that little bit of movement misses barrels, [generates] mishits and gave me a lot of ground balls and weak contact, which is all I can ask for.”

Opponents are batting just .182 off Asher’s two-seamer in his four starts this year, according to data from Fangraphs.com, a complete 180 from his disastrous September call-up in 2015.

In his first major league starts, Asher struggled to establish a mound presence with a four-seamer that nearly touched 95 MPH. Opponents batted .250 and got seven extra-base hits off the four seamer as Asher finished 2015 with an ugly 9.31 ERA.

The Phillies challenged Asher to generative more movement on the pitch and he returned in Spring Training with an entirely new repertoire.

So far, the effort has paid off.

“It’s outstanding. It’s been a real good pitch for him and his changeup,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Asher’s two-seamer. “He didn’t have either pitch last year, and for him to come up with it over the course of the winter and throw those pitches so effectively is huge.”

Asher relied on the changeup to escape the fifth inning — the only high-stress situation he faced all evening.

With four runs already in, a fifth runner poised on third base and a Citi Field crowd beside itself in hopes of a miracle comeback, Asher got pinch-hitter James Loney to top a low changeup out of the zone down the first base line that Tommy Joseph stopped with a dive.

“[I wanted] just to slow the game down and take it pitch by pitch,” Asher said.

Even if Saturday wound up being perhaps a bit more frantic than he would have liked to be, Asher has developed a formula for future success as he prepares for his final start of the season next Friday — also against the Mets — and 2017.

“Just establishing the fastball, commanding both sides of the plate and changing speeds,” he said.

His two-run single in the first inning on Saturday night — his first two career RBIs and, ultimately, the winning margin — was a bonus.

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Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Catcher Jorge Alfaro is making his second straight start after Saturday's 10-8 win.

Alfaro, the Phillies' top catching prospect, has gone 0 for 11 with a walk in his three career starts, all coming in the last two weeks since he was called up. Alfaro was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade last July and is 1 for 13 with a walk in five games. 

The 23-year-old will catch Jake Thompson in a game that means a lot more to the Mets (1:10/CSN).

Giving Alfaro playing time allows Phillies fans the chance to get a glimpse of the future. Roman Quinn has received plentiful playing time after was called up in the mid-September and Alfaro, like Quinn, is trying to leave an impression on the Phillies' brass before spring training.

Quinn is not in the lineup on Sunday as Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche man the corner outfield spots. Freddy Galvis moved up to second in the lineup after staying in the bottom half of the lineup in recent games.

Ryan Howard will bat fifth, playing likely his final game at Citi Field with the Phillies. While he has batted just .203 in 52 career games at Citi Field, he alos has 11 home runs there after smashing 12 homers at Shea Stadium, the Mets' previous stadium.

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Robert Gsellman and the Mets.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. Aaron Altherr, RF
8. Jorge Alfaro, C
9. Jake Thompson, P

For more on today's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes

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