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: 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."