Phillies-Braves 5 things: From Syndergaard's velo to Colon's precision

Phillies-Braves 5 things: From Syndergaard's velo to Colon's precision

Phillies (6-9) vs. Braves (6-9)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Well, that was unexpected. 

The Phillies became the first team in four tries to beat Noah Syndergaard, scoring five runs (three earned) off of him in seven innings of a 6-4 win.

It gave the Phils a series win over the Mets and some momentum heading into the weekend against the Braves.

Obviously, things might not have turned out the same, but the Phillies in retrospect were one Joaquin Benoit pitch away from potentially winning consecutive road series against the Nationals and Mets.

The Phils finish their first wave of games against Washington and New York with a 5-7 record. Not terrible considering where those two clubs are projected to finish in the National League.

1. In come the Braves
Talk about an unbalanced schedule. The Phillies have the Braves for three games this weekend and then don't see them again until June 5-8 in Atlanta. 

Only seven of the Phillies' first 100 games are against the Braves.

This Atlanta team is better than it was a year ago. The Braves this offseason added Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia and R.A. Dickey to the rotation, Kurt Suzuki behind the plate, Brandon Phillips at second base, and they'll have full seasons out of shortstop Dansby Swanson and outfielder Matt Kemp.

Garcia, Dickey, Suzuki and Phillips are not huge additions, but they're replacing replacement-level players, thus raising the Braves' ceiling a bit.

The real reason the Braves are projected by many to finish ahead of the Phillies in the NL East is the middle of their order. Freddie Freeman has grown from pretty good first baseman to very good first baseman to maybe the best first baseman in the National League. Freeman enters the series hitting .407 with a .500 on-base percentage in 15 games. He already has four doubles, a triple and six home runs.

Freeman is such a tough out. He has immense power, can hit lefties, works counts, walks a lot, and aside from last season (171 K's) has never been a big-strikeout guy. Through 14 games this season Freeman has 10 walks and 12 strikeouts.

It feels like Freeman kills the Phillies -- and he has, hitting .303/.388/.475 with 15 homers and 66 RBIs in 113 career games -- but he's been even better against the Mets and Nationals. He has three more homers and 12 more RBIs vs. New York and has hit .327 lifetime against Washington.

Best all-around player in the NL East? It's either Freeman, Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy and I'd give Freeman the edge over Murphy because of defense.

2. Kemp activated
The Braves also have Kemp back this weekend. He was hot to start to the season, going 8 for 16 with four doubles and two homers in five games before landing on the DL with a hamstring injury. He returned to the Braves' lineup last night and went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.

Kemp had fallen so far out of favor in San Diego that when he was traded to Atlanta last summer, Braves fans weren't exactly jazzed about the move. 

Defensive concerns aside, Kemp has been an extremely productive hitter since joining the Braves. In 60 games and 258 plate appearances, he's hit .296/.349/.561 with 19 doubles, 14 homers and 43 RBIs.

The Braves' front office felt Freeman needed protection, particularly right-handed protection, in the lineup. So far it's worked out. The Braves were 37-68 last season before Kemp arrived and 31-25 after acquiring him.

3. From Syndergaard to Colon
The Phillies go from facing a guy built like Khal Drogo who throws 100 mph to a guy built like Lord Varys who throws 90.

Still, Colon is one effective 43-year-old.

In his first three starts with the Braves, Colon is 1-1 with a 4.24 ERA, but in typical Colon fashion, he's alternated dominance and futility. 

In his first start, he allowed on run on two hits over six innings to the Mets.

In his second start, he served up six runs over four innings in a loss to the Marlins.

Then this past Sunday, Colon gave up just one hit, a solo homer, over seven innings against the Padres.

Colon is one of the easier pitchers to gameplan for but that doesn't make him easy to hit. He throws his four-seam fastball or two-seam fastball about 90 percent of the time, relying on pinpoint location on the outside corner to generate weak contact. 

There are few pitchers -- perhaps none -- who dot the outside corner to right-handed hitters better than Colon. Almost two-thirds of his pitches to righties this season (66.3 percent) have been on the outer-third or just off the plate away. Righties are 2 for 15 when making contact with those pitches.

As a Met the last few years, Colon has had some well-documented success against the Phillies. Current Phils have hit just .188 against him in nearly 200 plate appearances.

Maikel Franco is 1 for 16 against Colon. Odubel Herrera is 5 for 27 with nine strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 5 for 25 with seven K's. Cesar Hernandez is 6 for 22 with six K's.

Even a veteran like Howie Kendrick, who is on the DL and won't play tonight, is 2 for 25 off Colon.

From 2014-16, Colon went 10-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 14 starts against the Phillies.

4. Can Hellickson keep it up?
Jeremy Hellickson has cruised through his first three starts, allowing three runs on 11 hits over 17 innings. He's gotten outs early in counts, averaging just 13.8 pitches per inning, one of the best marks in all of baseball.

It's reasonable, though, to expect the worm to turn soon. Hellickson has just five strikeouts in three starts and his swinging strike rate of 6.4 percent is fourth-lowest in the majors. (His mound opponent, Bartolo Colon, has the third-lowest swinging strike rate at 6.3 percent.)

Hellickson will miss more bats as the season goes on, but the flyballs he allows will also drop more frequently. He's actually allowing 10 percent more "hard contact" than he did last season, per Fangraphs, and that .182 opponents' batting average on balls in play is sure to regress toward his career average of .272.

Not saying Hellickson's next three starts will go as poorly as his first three starts went well, just that this type of unhittability is not sustainable. Still, he's proven to be a durable, consistent starter for the Phillies the last two seasons, a valuable No. 3 in an NL rotation.

Hellickson faced the Braves four times last season and went 1-0 with a 3.43 ERA, allowing one homer in 21 innings. 

Current Braves have hit just .237/.287/.360 against him in 139 at-bats. Kemp has had the most success, going 7 for 19 with a double, triple and homer. Freeman is 2 for 7 with a double and three walks. Rightfielder Nick Markakis has seen him the most from their days in the AL East and is 10 for 50 with two homers.

5. This and that
• Great to see Franco and Tommy Joseph break out of their slumps Thursday against Syndergaard, not just because Syndergaard is an ace but because he's a flamethrower and both Franco and Joseph have struggled with hittable fastballs early this season.

• Based on Pete Mackanin's comments last night after using Hector Neris for a 1-2-3 save, it looks like Neris will be the closer until he fails or unless he's unavailable because of overuse.

• A couple rough nights in a row for Cesar Hernandez: 0 for 9, six strikeouts.

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

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Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

CHICAGO -- Paul DeJong hit a tiebreaking two-run double in St. Louis' nine-run eighth inning, and the Cardinals cooled off the Chicago Cubs with an 11-4 victory on Friday.

Chicago carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, looking for its seventh consecutive win. But St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in its highest-scoring inning of the season, taking advantage of a combined six walks by three relievers while improving to 4-4 since the All-Star break.

Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2) was pulled after the first three batters reached. Hector Rondon then walked Jedd Gyorko, tying it at 3, and DeJong followed with a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double. The Cardinals were off and running from there.

Matt Bowman (2-3) got the final out of the seventh for the win.

The Cubs played without third baseman Kris Bryant, who sprained his left little finger on a headfirst slide on Wednesday. X-rays were negative, but Bryant is experiencing soreness and there is some concern about gripping a bat (see full recap).

Andrus' hustle gives Rangers win in 10th inning
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Elvis Andrus homered early, and then snapped a 10th-inning tie with a two-out infield single that gave the struggling Texas Rangers a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

Andrus, who homered in the first inning, hit a sharp grounder off Brad Boxberger (2-1) that forced Evan Longoria to make a diving stop. Pinch runner Delino Shields scored when the third baseman to was unable to complete the throw to first base.

Alex Claudio (2-0) pitched two innings in relief of Yu Darvish to get the win. The left-hander gave up a leadoff single to Steven Souza Jr. in the 10th, but avoided further damage by getting Adeiny Hechavarria to bunt into a double play and Mallex Smith to fly out.

Texas ended a five-game losing streak.

Rays starter Alex Cobb took a three-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but couldn't finish off the Rangers, who erased their deficit with Joey Gallo's double and Shin-Soo Choo's 14th homer within a three-pitch span (see full recap).

Encarnacion powers Indians past former team
CLEVELAND -- Edwin Encarnacion homered and drove in four runs against his former team, and the Cleveland Indians broke open a close game with an eight-run seventh inning to rout the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 on Friday night.

Encarnacion, who played the last six seasons with Toronto before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in January, hit a leadoff home run in the second, broke a 3-all tie in the fifth with a two-run double and added an RBI single in the seventh.

Encarnacion was 3 for 4 with a walk and nearly added to his total later in the seventh, but center fielder Kevin Pillar tracked down his fly ball on the warning track with two runners on.

Abraham Almonte hit a three-run homer and rookie Bradley Zimmer added a two-run single in the seventh as the Indians won for just the second time in eight games (see full recap).

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

BOX SCORE

Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.