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.”

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."