Phillies-Cardinals: What you need to know

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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

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."