Phillies look to turn weekend sweep into sustained run

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Phillies look to turn weekend sweep into sustained run

After a stretch of 17 games in 17 days, the Phillies had an off day Monday.

All things considered, Charlie Manuel would rather have kept on playing.

“When you’re playing good, or starting to play good, or have a streak going, I like to keep playing,” the Phillies' manager said. “If I had my way we’d play.”

A month into the season, the Phillies finally have a reason to feel good about themselves. They are coming off their best three-game stretch of the season, a sweep of the New York Mets in which they received good pitching and even better hitting. Their offense, which had sputtered in the early weeks of the season, produced 18 runs in three games against the Mets and collected nine hits in 25 at-bats with a runner in scoring position. To put that in perspective, the Phils lost three in a row to Pittsburgh before heading to New York. They were 4 for 29 with runners in scoring position in those three games against the Pirates.

Yes, the Phillies’ weekend sweep came against the Mets, a team that is expected to finish near the bottom in the NL East, and Matt Harvey, the Mets’ best arm, did not pitch in the series. But you can only beat the team in front of you that day. The Phils weren’t about to throw back the sweep and the momentum they hope they gained with it.

“We knew we were kind of due for a series like this,” said Laynce Nix, whose two-out, pinch-hit in the seventh inning helped key Sunday’s win. “Now we have to try to keep it going.”

The schedule remains kind to the Phillies as they visit the Cleveland Indians for a two-game series starting Tuesday night. The Indians entered play on Monday in last place in the AL Central. After the quick two-game series against the Terry Francona-led Tribe, the Phils return home for four games against the lowly Miami Marlins.

The Mets. The Indians. The Marlins.

These are teams the Phillies (12-14) must clean up on if they are to make a run at a playoff spot.

So far, so good, by the way: The Phils are 7-2 against the Mets and Marlins. Tougher tests will come and maybe the Phils are becoming better equipped to handle those challenges.

First, Roy Halladay, who starts Tuesday night, seems to be finding himself after opening the season with two poor starts. He has given up just eight hits, five walks and four runs while striking out 16 in 21 innings over his last three starts. If he can continue to perform at or close to that level, the Phils’ rotation should be formidable with Cole Hamels (he’s due to go on a big run), Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick (see story).

Second, Ryan Howard is finding his groove after a slow start. He has two doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs in his last five games. He hit everything hard in New York. Howard’s production in the cleanup hole has always been crucial to this team and so is Jimmy Rollins’ work in the leadoff hole. Rollins had a strong series in New York with four hits -- including an important two-out single to cap a nine-pitch at-bat in the seventh inning Sunday -- two walks and four runs.

The third reason to believe the Phils could be ready to put something together is this: Their lineup is about to get deeper and better. It got a little better and deeper with the return of Carlos Ruiz on Sunday – “He just makes our lineup feel more complete,” Hamels said -- and will benefit from the addition of Delmon Young in the coming days. May 1 has been the loose target date for adding Young to the roster. He is currently rehabbing from ankle surgery with Triple A Lehigh Valley. Ruiz and Young are two solid right-handed bats that should make the Phils less susceptible to left-handed pitching and more productive overall.

First-year hitting coach Steve Henderson liked what he saw in New York and thinks the lineup is poised to continue to produce.

“Every hitter in Major League Baseball will have little bumps in the road,” Henderson said. “It just so happens we had ours early in the year. These guys are proven hitters here. All of them. When it does click, you’ll see an example like you saw this weekend.

“Having Delmon and Carlos is going to make a lot of difference. It takes a little pressure off everybody so they can just do their job. Early in the year, we weren’t scoring runs like we should, but everybody was putting pressure on themselves, trying to make something happen. Now you have a full team together and that will be a more relaxed team.”

Said Manuel: “When you start playing more relaxed, good things happen.”

Good things happened for the Phillies in New York, but it was just three games, a drop of water in the Olympic-sized swimming pool that is a major-league baseball season. The Phils need to use the weekend as a springboard into a successful month of May.

“We were able to come through in some crunch situations [in New York],” Hamels said, “but we still have a lot to build on. I know we can get a lot more hits, we can put up a lot more runs, throw a lot more strikes. This is just a small step to where we want to go.”

Blue Jays 10, Phillies 4: Aaron Nola hit hard in final Grapefruit start

Blue Jays 10, Phillies 4: Aaron Nola hit hard in final Grapefruit start

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies got the good health they were looking for from Aaron Nola this spring.

But the overall results weren't so good.

Nola struggled in his sixth and final Grapefruit League start Tuesday night. He was roughed up for seven hits, including two home runs, and five runs and did not make it out of the second inning in the Phillies' 10-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Nola finished the Grapefruit League portion of his spring with an ERA of 8.38 after giving up 18 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He gave up 28 hits, walked seven and struck out 23.

"People say it's spring training but nobody wants to go out there and give up runs," Nola said.

While he wasn't happy with the numbers he put up in camp, Nola was pleased with his health. He missed the final two months of last season with an elbow strain. He said that is completely behind him.

"I feel good," he said. "The ball is coming out of my hand really good.

"Tonight was the best I've felt all spring. I just left some balls up and they took some good swings. It was a tough night."

Manager Pete Mackanin weighed in on Nola's spring.

"One thing I like is that his velocity is way up," Mackanin said. "I think his arm is healthy and that's good to see more than anything.

"He hasn't shown the command that makes him a good pitcher, but I think that will get there."

Nola gave up home runs to Troy Tulowitzki and Melvin Upton Jr.

Nola lines up to pitch the fifth game of the regular season a week from Saturday in Philadelphia.

He only threw 51 pitches Tuesday night so he has room for a good bullpen session and another start before that outing. The start will come at the minor-league complex on Sunday. He will then join the team in Cincinnati for Monday's season opener.

Murray injured
Reliever Colton Murray ran his scoreless string to 10 1/3 innings before allowing a two-run homer in his third inning of work. Murray left the game with what looked like a lower back injury. He fell to the ground in pain after throwing a pitch. Earlier in the day, Murray was told that he would open the season in Triple A.

Minor matters 
Infielder Cole Stobbe, 19, the Phillies' third-round pick in last year's draft, and 18-year-old righty Sixto Sanchez were named winners of the Bill Giles and Larry Rojas awards for their standout work in minor-league camp. Both are among the organization's most highly touted young prospects.

Up next
The Phillies will split the squad and play two games on Wednesday. One team will go to Lakeland to play the Tigers. The other will go to Bradenton to face the Pirates.

The battle for one of the final spots in the bullpen will take center stage as Luis Garcia starts in Lakeland and Joely Rodriguez in Bradenton.

Brock Stassi appears headed for big leagues as Phillies' roster comes into focus

Brock Stassi appears headed for big leagues as Phillies' roster comes into focus

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Busy, busy day of roster moves in Phillies camp.

Let's try to put it all in perspective.

First, the facts:

Veteran infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan was released from his minor-league contract.

Right-handed pitcher Alec Asher was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for a player to be named later or cash.

Infielder Pedro Florimon and relief pitchers Cesar Ramos, Hoby Milner, Pat Venditte and Colton Murray were all informed that they will not make the opening-day roster, but they remain in big-league camp as non-roster invitees.

OK, what does it all mean?

Let's start on the position-player side. The starting eight is set, but there are still openings to fill on the bench before the team's charter flight lifts off from Tampa International Airport early Friday evening.

Barring something unforeseen, infielder Andres Blanco, outfielder Aaron Altherr and catcher Andrew Knapp will all make the 25-man roster. That leaves two openings on the bench.

Coghlan, a former National League Rookie of the Year and member of last year's World Series-winning Chicago Cubs team, asked for his release after the club raised the possibility of him signing an advance consent form. Advanced consent gives a team more control of a player and also allows a team to release a player with no further financial commitment up to 45 days into the season. Coghlan decided to move on, as was his contractual right, and is expected to land with another club.

Coghlan's departure reduced the field of candidates for the two bench jobs to three -- Brock Stassi, Daniel Nava and Jesmuel Valentin.

All signs point to lefty-hitting first baseman/outfielder Brock Stassi being rewarded for his excellent spring with a spot on the roster. The 27-year-old from the Sacramento area, the team's 33rd-round draft pick in 2011, has never played in the majors.

With Stassi looking good, the final spot on the bench is down to Nava and Valentin. They are two very different players. Nava is 34 and has five years of big-league service time. He is in camp on a minor-league deal, essentially looking to keep his career alive. Valentin, on the other hand, is 22 and very much a prospect. The team must decide if it wants to go with the veteran outfielder or the young second baseman for the final spot on the bench.

"With the way Stassi, Nava and Valentin are playing right now, one way or another we're going to be making tough decisions on the bench," general manager Matt Klentak said.

With Asher off the 40-man roster, the Phillies have the space to add Stassi.

They would need to create one more spot, probably by waiving a player, if they want to keep Nava.

Valentin is already on the 40-man roster so the team would not have to lose a player to keep him, but doing that would cost the young player the development opportunity that would come with regular at-bats in Triple A.

"I'm not opposed to starting that way if he wins the job and that's how we open," Klentak said of Valentin. "If we concluded after a few weeks that playing time just isn't there and we need to send him back down and get somebody else up, we can do that. That's the beauty of roster flexibility and having players on the big-league club with options. We can make those decisions in real time throughout the year."

So let's move on to the bullpen.

Five spots are set with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek.

It's likely that the team will go with seven relievers. That means there are two open spots with three candidates -- Adam Morgan, Joely Rodriguez and Luis Garica -- still standing. All three are on the 40-man roster, so that makes the personnel mechanics a little easier. 

The team probably needs a long reliever and Morgan profiles as that guy.

Rodriguez and Garcia are both scheduled to pitch in separate games on Wednesday, so their performances will be worth watching, though Klentak said not all roster decisions are based on spring performance. 

Garcia has had a number of chances in the majors the last four seasons. He has recently added a splitter and team officials are intrigued by that, so he has remained in the mix.

There is a slim chance the team could carry all three of these relievers and go with an eight-man bullpen and a short bench, but that would be tough to do in the National League. When the decisions are made, look for a five-man bench and a seven-man bullpen.

But, remember, things can change quickly on a 25-man roster once the season begins. Ender Inciarte was on the Phillies' opening-day roster in 2013 and gone a day later. Cedric Hunter was there last year and gone two weeks later.

"We have to make sure we're disciplined to the notion that the end of spring training is not a finish line," Klentak said. "The end of spring training is the starting line for a long major-league season. Whatever we can do to preserve as many assets and players and different possibilities as we can, we need to factor that in as we're making out our opening-day roster."