Phillies make Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr.'s MLB dreams come true

Phillies make Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr.'s MLB dreams come true

NEW YORK -- Dreams are coming true all over the place with this Phillies team.

First, it was rookies Andrew Knapp and Brock Stassi making the club in the final days of spring training.

And now, 2½ weeks into the season, Mark Leiter Jr. and Ben Lively have arrived from Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Leiter, a 26-year-old right-hander, was called up on Tuesday afternoon and made it from Allentown to Citi Field in time for that night's game. His dad, Mark Sr., pitched for a decade in the majors and spent the 1997 and 1998 seasons with the Phillies. The Leiters are just the second father-son combo to play in the majors for the Phillies, joining the Amaros, Ruben Sr. and Jr.

"That's incredible," said the younger Leiter, who fondly remembers playing catch with his dad at Veterans Stadium. "I'm proud of that. That's something that I've dreamed about and me and my dad have talked about. That was the goal. I would love to have a career like he had. I would love that. I'm excited to be here and looking forward to everything that's coming."

Leiter and Stassi roomed together in Clearwater this spring. The two were both late-round draft picks -- Stassi a 33rd-rounder out of Nevada-Reno in 2011 and Leiter a 22nd-rounder out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2013.

"Seeing everything Brock went through in spring, it felt like a lot of my story is similar," Leiter said. "I couldn't have been happier for him. I was lucky enough to share some of that with him being his roommate and having that night hanging out with him before the team left. To experience it for myself, it's amazing. It really was."

Leiter was not in big-league camp this spring. He was over on the minor-league side, though he did come over to the big-league side as an extra a few times. Leiter pitched at Double-A Reading last season and went 6-3 with a 3.39 ERA in 103 2/3 innings, some as a starter, some as a reliever. Phillies minor-league instructors have long liked his pitching savvy and toughness on the mound. He was promoted to Triple-A this season and allowed just one run in 5 1/3 innings over two appearances. He walked two and struck out 11.

The Phillies summoned Leiter when they placed outfielder Howie Kendrick on the disabled list Tuesday. Leiter was on the field in Lehigh Valley going through the pregame stretch when manager Dusty Wathan called him into the dugout.

From afar, Lively watched the dugout meeting.

"We were in the outfield stretching and Dusty said, 'Leiter, come here,'" Lively said. "We saw Mark go in the dugout. We were thinking, 'Did he get sent down?' No one knew. Then we saw them hugging and smiling. It was pretty cool."

Leiter phoned his wife back at the apartment in Allentown and she ran an overnight bag over to the ballpark and within 40 minutes of getting the news of his dream-come-true promotion, he was in a car on the way to New York and ultimately was in uniform in the bullpen for the first pitch. The Leiters, of course, are New Jersey baseball legends from Tom's River. Al Leiter, the brother of Mark Sr., had a long and successful career with the Yankees, Blue Jays, Marlins, and Mets. A bunch of Mark Leiter Jr.'s pals from home made it to Tuesday night's game and shouted at him in the bullpen.

While Leiter was a late-round draft pick, Lively, 25, was a fourth-rounder by the Cincinnati Reds in 2013. The Phillies picked him up in a trade for Marlon Byrd on New Year's Eve 2014 and he won 18 games at Double A and Triple A last season and won the Paul Owens Award as the organization's top minor-league pitcher. Lively came up to replace reliever Pat Neshek, who went on paternity leave Wednesday (see story). Neshek is expected back by the weekend, so Lively's stay could be brief. The pitcher knows that.

"I'll get my feet wet," he said with a smile. "My name is right there -- call me whenever.

"Everyone is always saying you're just a phone call away, and the phone call came at midnight."

Lively was home relaxing after Tuesday night's Lehigh Valley game when Wathan called and told him he was joining Leiter in the big leagues.

Lively's dad, Ed, runs charter fishing boats in Pensacola, Florida. He's on the job by 5 a.m. every day so he gets to bed early. But his son did not hesitate to call his folks at midnight with the good news.

"My dad woke up and said, 'Something happen?' And I said, 'No, no. All good,'" Lively said. "I told him and he was pretty pumped. Then he woke up my mom and she started to cry. She lost it. My dad -- he was just fired up."

The Phillies sent a car to Allentown on Wednesday morning to shuttle Lively to Manhattan. He said he's not a big city guy, but there was no place he would rather have been Wednesday night than New York, in the big leagues, even if the assignment figures to be brief.

"Honestly, when it started setting in, I was in the car and I started seeing the city," he said. "I was like, 'All right, this is happening.' It was pretty cool."

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

BOX SCORE

When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command, it's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Phillies reliever Pat Neshek is having a tremendous, All-Star season, but the restrictions on his usage have become a real concern.

Neshek, who has a 0.63 ERA and 30 scoreless appearances out of 31, induced an inning-ending double play Thursday to get the Phillies to the ninth with a two-run lead. He threw just five pitches in the 5-1 win (see Instant Replay).

But even if the Phillies didn't tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Neshek was not going back out for a save situation in the ninth, Mackanin said.

"I asked him to go back out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He said he would rather not, he didn't feel like he had it. 

"I would have liked to have sent him back out, obviously, because he's been so effective. However, we've got a good thing going there and if he can only pitch one inning for us, I'll take it. 

"He's been that good and I don't want to disrupt that. That's one area that I don't have to worry about. So, I did ask if he could go back out, he just thought it was better that he didn't."

Moments later, Neshek said he was not asked to go back out for the ninth.

It's the second straight day there have been conflicting messages when it comes to Neshek's availability. Wednesday night, when the Phillies blew a five-run lead and allowed runs in both the eighth and ninth innings as Neshek stayed in the bullpen, Mackanin said that Neshek had told him earlier he was unavailable. But then Neshek said that he was the one told he'd have the day off.

Whichever order of operations has actually occurred the last two games, these restrictions on Neshek's usage are affecting the Phillies late in games and they're sure to have an impact on his trade value as well.

The trade value is the more important thing here long-term because the Phillies are 25 games under .500. Neshek and Howie Kendrick are their two best trade assets, but if you're a contending team, why give up anything of substance for a half-season of Neshek if you don't even know if you can send him out two games in a row?

"He gave me the off day when I showed up," Neshek said Thursday about the middle game of the series. "I don’t know. You guys (the media) are making a big deal out of it."

Did he feel better Thursday?

"Yeah," he said. "I went out there and got the double play.

"We’ve been used a lot this week. I was kind of hoping that I might get a day today. But I understand the state of the bullpen. You have to suck it up and go out there."

Neshek has been used five times in the last seven days, so he does have a point, he has been used a lot. That's the byproduct of being your team's most reliable reliever.

At this stage, Neshek is a safe bet to be the Phillies' All-Star representative, especially because he'd serve an actual purpose in the All-Star Game as a right-handed specialist capable of retiring the best of the best.

"It could happen," he said. "There’s a couple other guys. It’s going to come down to who Joe Maddon wants for his bench. Is it going to be an extra pitcher? Is it going to be an extra hitter? They usually don’t stick with middle relief guys. Yeah, I have the numbers. But the All-Star Game is kind of a hairy thing if you’re not the star guy, if you’re not the save guy. It’s going to come down to do we need a pitcher or do we need a hitter.

"It’s really tough to make it as a middle reliever. It’s hard to get excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet."