Phillies-Braves: 5 things you need to know

phillies-at-braves-day.png

Phillies-Braves: 5 things you need to know

Phillies at Braves
12:10 p.m. on NBC 10

How 'bout those Phillies? They're still seven games under .500 at 31-38, but after winning the series in Atlanta behind two well-pitched games Monday and Tuesday, the Phils are just 4½ games behind the Braves and Marlins and five back of the first-place Nationals.

The Phils now go for the sweep this afternoon. Here are five things to know ahead of Wednesday's matinee game:

1. Rare road sweep?
The Phillies have not swept a series on the road since April 26-28, 2013 at Citi Field against the Mets. That was 33 road series ago.

If the Phils win Wednesday it would also be their second sweep in their last three series overall.

2. Hernandez on the hill
Roberto Hernandez (2-5, 4.26) is the one Phillies starter who hasn't been able to go deep into games all season. But who knows, maybe the fine work from the starting staff will be contagious.

Since Sunday, A.J. Burnett, Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick have combined to pitch 22 innings and allow five runs. Now it's Hernandez's turn.

Hernandez has averaged 5.5 innings in his 12 starts and has not finished six innings since May 23 against the Dodgers.

He faced the Braves on April 14 and allowed just two runs over six innings despite walking six.

3. Harang is hittable
Aaron Harang has been reborn this year in Atlanta, but he's still hittable on a game-by-game basis and should not alone prevent the Phillies from sweeping.

Harang (5-5, 3.20) has made 12 quality starts in 14 tries and held his opponents to a .245 batting average.

None of his stuff is overpowering, but he has thrown six different pitches this season: a four-seam fastball and sinker at 90 mph, a slider, curveball, cutter and changeup. The slider is his off-speed pitch of choice. The opposition is 20 for 90 this season against it.

Current Phillies have hit .303 against Harang. Chase Utley is 10 for 22 (.455) with four doubles, a homer and three walks. Jimmy Rollins is 11 for 39 (.282). Marlon Byrd is 5 for 13 with a homer. Ryan Howard is 6 for 21 (.286) with three bombs of his own.

4. Braves basher
Howard homered in each of the first two games of the series to give him 13 on the year and 46 in his career against the Braves.

Those 46 home runs and 126 RBIs against the Braves have come in 143 games, nearly a full major-league season. Howard is also a .291 hitter against Atlanta.

He's now on pace for 31 homers and 106 RBIs.

Ten of Howard's 13 home runs have been either two- or three-run jacks.

5. Divisional matters
The Phillies head to St. Louis for four games after wrapping up the series in Atlanta, but after that they play 15 straight against NL East opponents.

Of the Phils' final 26 games before the All-Star break, 18 are against either the Braves, Marlins or Nationals, the three teams ahead of them in the division.

Which means this: As poorly as the Phillies have played for 70 games, all they'll need to do to be in good shape at the season's unofficial midpoint is play well for the next three weeks.

If the Phillies can win 12 of those 18 games against divisional foes, there's a good chance they'll be within three games of first place at the break.

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.