Phillies open up homestand with win over Padres

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Phillies open up homestand with win over Padres

BOX SCORE

For a veteran starting pitcher like A.J. Burnett, facing a struggling offensive team like the San Diego Padres can be tricky. Though the Padres have the worst batting average (.218) and have scored the fewest runs in the league, they can be quite aggressive.

Fortunately for the Phillies, Burnett was able to use the Padres’ aggressiveness against them as he pitched the team to a 5-2 victory on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).

Aided by a three-run homer and a sacrifice fly from Marlon Byrd, some electrifying radar-gun popping relief work from Jake Diekman and the 300th career save for closer Jonathan Papelbon (see story), the Phillies snapped a two-game losing streak and won for just the second time in the last 10 games.

More importantly, the Phillies kicked off a six-game homestand against the Padres (28-36) and last-place Cubs with a chance to stay alive in the NL East for a while longer.

At 26-36, the Phillies are tied with the Cubs for the worst record in the National League. However, the Phillies are just seven games out in the division.

Oh yes, the Phillies are very aware of what’s at stake during the homestand.

“We have an opportunity to climb out of a hole in this homestand and hopefully a lot of the guys in the clubhouse can recognize that and hopefully we can take advantage of that in our own ballpark,” Papelbon said. “Regardless of what’s gone on and our situation, we still have an opportunity to get back in this thing.”

Outings like Burnett’s are a good place to start. After a fielding error by Ryan Howard put runners on the corners with one out, Burnett retired 15 of the next 16 he faced on just 60 pitches. Thanks to the Padres’ aggressiveness, Burnett needed just two or fewer pitches against nine hitters and threw 16 first-pitch strikes to the 27 he faced.

Those 16 first-pitch strikes led to 14 outs.

“They swing. They come out swinging. I feel like I got away with a lot tonight,” Burnett said. “I didn't have a real good hook. I got outs out of it, but not the kind of outs I want. They swing. You have to get ahead and put guys away. I was able to get groundballs out of it.”

Better yet, Burnett was able to escape quickly after the Phillies scored four runs in the fourth inning. Those shutdown innings have been tough to come by for the Phillies during the recent skid.

“That's important. It gets us back in,” Burnett said. “We were swinging the bat good tonight. We came out swinging. I harp on it. It's about time I came through with one of those.”

The Phillies’ offense was spurred by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the middle of the lineup. With one out in the fourth, Utley singled home Ben Revere and went from first to third on a single by Howard. That set the table for Byrd’s three-run blast to right off Ian Kennedy.

Two innings later, Utley hit another one-out single and again went from first to third on a single by Howard. This time it only took a sacrifice fly from Byrd to get Utley home.

“We just have to continue to do that, up and down the lineup,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “We had another chance in the eighth with the bases loaded and no outs, we didn’t capitalize there. I think more good at-bats, three or four or five or six guys in the lineup getting hits and having quality at-bats like we did tonight.”

Take away the eighth when Howard, Byrd and Dom Brown struck out with the bases loaded, the Phillies stranded just one base runner and got home everyone in scoring position.

That type of offense -- and the three-run homer -- has been a missing piece for the Phillies. If Sandberg can get a little more consistency in that aspect of the game, perhaps the Phils won’t be long for the cellar in the NL East.

“[We have to] build on the hits with guys gaining confidence with that,” Sandberg said. “Having everyone up and down the lineup chip in and create some momentum -- we just have to carry it over into tomorrow.”

The three-game series continues on Wednesday night when Cole Hamels (2-3, 3.49) faces right-hander Tyson Ross (6-5, 3.22). Hamels is 8-2 with a 2.39 ERA against his hometown team.

Ross has faced the Phillies three times with one start for a grand total of three innings. His start lasted just two-thirds of an inning when he allowed six runs on five hits and two walks last Sept. 12.

Phillies likely to carry rookie backup catcher in 2017

Phillies likely to carry rookie backup catcher in 2017

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The likelihood of the Phillies going with a rookie backup catcher in 2017 increased dramatically when the Miami Marlins signed free agent A.J. Ellis on Wednesday.

Ellis spent the final month of the 2016 season with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade. Ellis, 35, got high marks for his work with the Phillies’ young pitching staff and the Phils had some interest in bringing him back. The interest, however, was complicated by a tight 40-man roster, which already includes three catchers — starter Cameron Rupp and minor-league prospects Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp.

With Ellis out of the picture, the Phillies will likely use either Alfaro or Knapp as the backup catcher in 2017. Knapp spent a full year at Triple A in 2016 and could end up being the guy as Alfaro moves to Triple A for another year of seasoning.

General manager Matt Klentak spoke earlier this week of the possibility of going with a rookie at backup catcher.

“Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A,” Klentak said. “He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

It’s not all that surprising that Ellis ended up with the Marlins on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. He played for Marlins manager Don Mattingly during the latter’s time as manager of the Dodgers.

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Tuesday night he'd still like another veteran bat in addition to Howie Kendrick, though he understands the front office is conscious of not blocking young prospects.

The Phillies need offense and the clearest area to upgrade is an outfield corner. But don't expect to see the Phils go after Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders or anyone of that ilk, because those players will require multi-year guarantees and everyday playing time. If you sign one of them, you're basically telling two of Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr that they won't be needed much the next three years. 

That would be unwise. The whole point of rebuilding is filling a roster with young, inexpensive talent and then eventually supplementing that core with established players who fit. Look at what the Cubs did. Look at what the Astros are doing now, adding older players like Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick to fill in the holes around Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

For that reason, a player like Seth Smith would be a worthwhile addition for the Phillies.

Smith, 34, makes $7 million in 2017, the final year of his contract with the Mariners. When Mackanin discusses "professional hitters," Smith is the type. He has one of the better batting eyes in baseball, chasing about eight percent fewer pitches outside the strike zone the last three years than the league average.

He's a career .261/.344/.447 hitter who averages 29 doubles, 16 homers, 56 walks and 102 strikeouts per 162 games.

The left-handed Smith can play both outfield corners, and he's always been very effective against right-handed pitching. He has a .272 career batting average with an .827 OPS against righties compared to .202 with a .594 OPS vs. lefties. 

Smith is a fit for the Phillies for several reasons. They need more offense from the corner outfield. Logically, that outfielder should be a left-handed hitter because the Phillies' projected middle of the order has four right-handed bats in Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp and Kendrick.

Furthermore, Smith, unlike Saunders, for example, does not require everyday playing time. Smith shouldn't start against lefties. That would provide opportunities to Altherr and Quinn in 2017, while protecting against ineffectiveness from Altherr and another injury to Quinn.

And lastly, Smith is not going to cost anything meaningful via trade. He's a 34-year-old platoon player in the final year of his deal. The Phillies could likely land him for an insignificant prospect, perhaps a pitcher who had a high strikeout rate last season in the low levels of the minor leagues. 

For Seattle, it would be more of a salary dump. The Mariners' 2016 payroll is already $20 million more than it was last year, and per reports, they seem willing to spend to improve their starting rotation.

Smith is not a game-changer, that's not the argument here. He's not J.D. Martinez, a much bigger name and better player. Martinez would also fit the Phillies as a one-year option, and they'd likely be interested in keeping him around longer if they could acquire him. But any trade with the Tigers for Martinez wouldn't be nearly as painless for the Phils as acquiring Smith. 

So perhaps more than other available outfielders, Smith would be an offensive upgrade and a player who fits the Phillies' goal of improving without stunting a top prospect's growth.