Phillies-Cardinals: What you need to know

771880.jpg

Phillies-Cardinals: What you need to know

Phillies (22-23) at St. Louis Cardinals (25-19)
8:15 p.m. on PHL17

The Phillies hit the road for seven games beginning Thursday night and the first stop is St. Louis.

The Phils lost the 2011 NLDS to a Cardinals team that looked markedly different than this one. Gone are Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. Shelved are Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman.

In for St. Louis, though, is Carlos Beltran, who is having an MVP-type season through his first 42 games. Beltran is batting .292 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .618 slugging percentage. He has 14 home runs and 37 RBI, eight more than any Phillie.

The Cardinals also have the services of Matt Holliday, who was available for just 10 weak plate appearances last October because of injury. So pretty much everything about that particular series can be thrown out.

The Cards have played at a very high level so far in 2012 because of a stacked offense. St. Louis has scored 231 runs to lead the NL, and the closest team (Atlanta, with 221) has played one more game.

Perhaps the scariest part about St. Louis is that it's scored plenty of runs and won plenty of games without Holliday performing up to his standards. He has a .817 OPS this season compared to .925 for his career. The Cards used a hot April from David Freese (who is batting .176 in May) and the rejuvenation of .339-hitter Rafael Furcal to make up for Holliday and the loss of Berkman, which has reached 30 games already.

Starting pitchers
Joe Blanton (4-4, 3.74 ERA) faces Jake Westbrook (4-3, 2.41).

Westbrook is on pace for the best season of his career, but his luck could change at any time. The notable differences in the 34-year-old sinkerballer are his reduced walk rate hes walking 2.2 batters per nine innings compared to 3.3 in 2010-11 and avoidance of home runs. Westbrook allows 18 home runs per season; hes on pace for fewer than 12 this season.

Westbrook throws his 90 mile per hour sinker 64 percent of the time and a slider 18 percent. The remaining 18 percent of his pitches are curveballs, changeups and straight four-seam fastballs.

The Phillies have seen him three times in the regular season, and Westbrook is 1-1 with a 3.52 ERA. Westbrook shut the Phils down last May, allowing one run over seven innings despite just one strikeout. Then in September, his control eroded and he walked five batters in addition to allowing five hits over 3 13 innings. The Phils won that game, 9-2.

Blanton struggled in his last start at home to the Red Sox, but has been very consistent so far in 2012. He has the Phillies only complete game and shutout, and has five quality starts (with one near-miss) in eight tries.

Key matchups
Blanton has gotten Beltran out throughout his career, but he hasnt particularly dominated him. Beltran is 3 for 16 off Blanton but only two of those 13 outs were strikeouts.

Holliday, meanwhile, is 3 for 8 off Blanton with two doubles and a home run.

Its all going to begin and end, though, with Furcal. If Blanton and the pitchers that follow him can keep Furcal off the bases, the Phillies have a significantly higher chance of winning this series. The Cards are eight games over .500 when Furcal reaches bases and three games under when he doesnt.

For the Phils, a key matchup is Hunter Pence vs. Westbrook. Pence is 7 for 12 in his career against Westbrook with six singles.

Jimmy Rollins, who will be available for Thursdays game after missing three games while on paternity leave, has also thrived vs. Westbrook. He is 5 for 9.

Overall, the Phillies are batting .324.401.453 off Westbrook.

Notes of interest
-The Phillies are 9-15 in games against teams .500 or better, and 13-8 against teams under .500. Theyll have to start winning some games against good teams, as the next 17 are against clubs with winning records.

-St. Louis has a 3.23 starters ERA and a 4.26 bullpen ERA. Forcing Westbrooks exit prior to the seventh inning is a key.

Sound off
Which team do you think is the best in the National League right now?

E-mail Corey Seidman at cseidman@comcastsportsnet.com

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozen baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot of attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coghlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could affect Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95 (mph), it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game-calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good, long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”

Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.