Phillies finish sweep of Brewers with crazy win

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Phillies finish sweep of Brewers with crazy win

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MILWAUKEE -- The Phillies are still buried in last place in the National League East and they need a high-powered telescope to see the top of the division.

So, nobody of sane mind, or at least nobody who has seen this team play for the past year, will be fooled into thinking that a four-game sweep of the reeling Milwaukee Brewers is about to vault the Phils back into contention. Frankly, it could be a while before this team contends again.

But the road to nowhere can occasionally provide some interesting scenery, and that’s exactly what happened these four days in the land of brats, beer, Bud Selig, Harley-Davidson and Laverne and Shirley.

“Baseball is a funny game,” said Jimmy Rollins, stealing one of Charlie Manuel’s favorite lines. “You hear it a lot and it’s very cliche, but it is. It’s weird. It’s weird.”

The Phillies completed a 10-game trip with a 9-1 win over the Brewers on Thursday (see Instant Replay).

It was what led up to that final outcome that was so weird.

The Phils opened the trip with five losses in the first six games at Miami and Pittsburgh. That dropped them to a season-high 14 games under .500 heading into four games against a Milwaukee club that sported the best record in the National League.

The best against one of the worst.

So, of course, the Phillies swept the Brewers.

The fourth win was indicative of just of how funny a game baseball can be.

The Phils were no-hit for six innings by Milwaukee starter Matt Garza. The right-hander took a two-hit shutout into the eighth inning, and it looked like an almost certain loss for the Phils. That’s how strong Garza’s stranglehold was.

But Phillies starter David Buchanan pitched pretty darn well himself. He kept the game close, and in the eighth inning the Phils improbably rallied for seven runs to take the lead.

The rally was as sudden and strong as a pop-up storm -- a double by Cameron Rupp, a walk by Cesar Hernandez, a groundout. Garza exited for lefty Will Smith as the Brewers turned Rollins from the left side to the right side. Rollins singled in two runs and the Phils never looked back.

The sweep turned a terrible road trip into a .500 road trip.

Yes, the Phillies caught the Brewers at a good time. They are a dreadful 1-8 in July and about to lose their grip on first place in the NL Central.

But the Phils also did a few good things in the series.

Cole Hamels, Roberto Hernandez and Buchanan all pitched gems. The bullpen racked up 8 2/3 scoreless innings in the four games. The bats produced some timely hits as evidenced in that 11-for-29 mark with runners in scoring position during the series.

“These last four games are something we can build on,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “To see the offense come alive in a four-game series against good pitching is a step in the right direction. These guys have good starting pitching and bullpen. That's a good sign for the group.”

Buchanan allowed just one run over seven innings. Hernandez allowed one run in eight innings the night before. One of these guys is likely to be dropped from the rotation when Cliff Lee comes off the disabled list next week. Both pitchers gave team officials something to think about.

“I just try to go out there every time I can and pitch the best game I can, try to give the team a chance to win,” said Buchanan, who is 5-5 with a 4.40 ERA in 10 starts. “When Cliff comes back, whatever happens, happens. I’ve enjoyed my time here. It’s been a great experience for me. Whatever happens, happens. It’s out of my control.”

“Those are just discussions we’ll have to have,” Sandberg said of the rotation puzzle. “It was a good outing for (Buchanan). It looked like they were having a hard time catching up to him. He had a real good fastball. It was live. He had quality pitches and mixed them well. I thought he was real confident and aggressive.”

Now comes the big question for the Phillies: Can they maintain this level of quality play in their final homestand before the all-star break? The three-game series begins Friday night against Washington.

The Phils are 18-27 at home.

That’s not good.

“At all,” Rollins said.

Sandberg hopes four days of pleasant scenery in Milwaukee, even if it was on the road to nowhere, will carry over at home.

“This series should help with that, with some momentum and the guys swinging the bats,” he said. “The bullpen continues to be solid. There were good components through these four games.”

Rollins at first had no answer for why the Phillies struggle so badly at home.

Then he did.

“Baseball’s a crazy game,” he said. “You just hope it’s good-crazy and not bad-crazy. We’ve had a lot of bad-crazy.”

Thursday was good-crazy.

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."