Phillies-Braves: 5 things you need to know

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Phillies-Braves: 5 things you need to know

Phillies at Braves
7:10 p.m. on NBC 10

The Phillies jumped out to an early two-run lead Friday night in Atlanta but immediately gave the runs back in a 6-4 loss (see Instant Replay).

The Phils have lost to the Braves five straight times, and at 42-54 they are 11 games behind Atlanta (53-43) in the NL East.

Here are five things you need to know about the middle game of the series:

1. First night back
Seven of eight Phillies starters reached base in their first game back from the All-Star break. The Phils had just six hits, but it wasn't a poor night offensively.

Jimmy Rollins walked twice out of the two-hole. Chase Utley hit his first double (not counting the All-Star Game) since June 7. Ryan Howard drove in two runs with a sixth-inning single. Marlon Byrd saw 20 pitches in four plate appearances. Grady Sizemore had two hits and is batting .313 in four games as a Phillie. Cody Asche had an RBI single and a bomb to right field with the bases loaded that may have been a grand slam in some parks but was just a sacrifice fly at Turner Field.

And the Phillies went 3 for 4 with runners in scoring position. They entered play ranked 27th in baseball with a .229 batting average with RISP.

2. Jimmy stays patient
Rollins walked for the 44th and 45th times Friday. He is on pace for 76 walks, which would best his previous career high by 14.

Where was this patience earlier in Rollins' career? He's been more selective in 2014 than ever before and hasn't sacrificed power doing it. Rollins is slugging .389 a year after slugging .348.

3. Milestone approaching
With his next steal, Rollins will reach 20 stolen bases for the 13th different year.

Only 13 players have ever had more seasons with 20-plus steals: Rickey Henderson (23), Ty Cobb (17), Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock (16), Willie Wilson, Max Carey, Eddie Collins and Honus Wagner (15), and Kenny Lofton, Otis Nixon, Brett Butler, Joe Morgan and Bert Campaneris (14).

4. Hamels on the hill
Cole Hamels, whose name has been bandied about lately in trade rumors, makes his first start of the second half looking for that elusive fourth win.

Hamels is 3-5 despite a 2.93 ERA, a .235 opponents' batting average and 106 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings.

You know about the run support. The Phillies have barely scored for Hamels and he's been forced to make pitch after pitch in tie games. But he's still having a brilliant season. 

Over his last 13 starts, Hamels has a 2.18 ERA and has allowed just 68 hits in 90 2/3 innings. The Phillies are 6-7.

This is his second start of the year at Turner Field against the Braves. He pitched seven shutout innings there on June 16 in a 6-1 Phillies win.

Hamels has faced the Braves more than he's faced any other team. In 32 games, he's gone 14-8 with a 3.41 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.

5. They've hit Harang
Hamels' mound opponent is 36-year-old Braves right-hander Aaron Harang, who is 9-6 with 3.53 ERA.

The Phillies have tuned him up in two meetings this season, scoring 11 runs on 24 hits over 12 innings. 

Byrd is 9 for 20 (.450) lifetime against Harang with three homers. Utley is 13 for 30 (.433) with four doubles and a homer. Sizemore is 11 for 25 (.440) with four doubles. Howard is 9 for 27 (.333) with two doubles and three homers.

All told, current Phillies have hit .349/.404/.559 against Harang.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."