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 getting good reports on catching prospect Jorge Alfaro

Phillies getting good reports on catching prospect Jorge Alfaro

Jorge Alfaro, one of the Phillies' most highly regarded prospects, is off to a big start at Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
He entered Wednesday night's game hitting .377 (23 for 61) with a 1.003 OPS in his first 15 games. He had a double, two triples, three homers and 10 RBIs. Team officials would surely like to see the strikeouts (17) come down and the walks (1) go up, but no one is complaining about the production.
 
"I just looked at his numbers," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's doing very well — knocking the cover off the ball."
 
Alfaro, 23, is widely considered the Phillies' catcher of the future. He's an athletic talent with huge upside. Many scouts believe he could be an All-Star if he puts it all together.
 
Defense is the area where Alfaro needs the most work. Yes, he's got a "howitzer" for an arm, as Mackanin called it, so that doesn't need much work. But there's a lot more to catching than throwing. There's game-calling, receiving and blocking.
 
Alfaro made a cameo with the big club last September and did not impress club officials with his receiving or blocking. Instructors focused on improving those areas in spring training, and Mackanin reports that Alfaro has shown progress in the early season.
 
"We get a complete game report on what everyone does offensively and defensively," Mackanin said. "Apparently he looks very good defensively.
 
"He had some issues defensively. He wasn't getting down enough and he worked on that all spring. He's a big guy and it's a little more difficult for a big guy to get low.
 
"And we wanted him to just be a little more quiet behind the plate, less movement. He had a tendency to be moving while the pitcher was getting ready to pitch. We just want a guy sitting back there nice and quiet with a good target. That might seem pretty elementary, but if you're not concentrating on doing that you might not realize the importance of it.
 
"He's doing well blocking balls. He's doing everything well right now and hitting on top of it, so that's a nice sign."

Clay Buchholz optimistic he can still pitch in 2017 after surgery

Clay Buchholz optimistic he can still pitch in 2017 after surgery

Pitcher Clay Buchholz made his first appearance in the Phillies' clubhouse Wednesday since having surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right forearm last week.  

Many initially believed Buchholz would be out for the remainder of the season -- and he still might be -- but he expressed optimism and believes he can return to the mound in September.

"My goal right now is to let this heal," Buchholz said. "Get it well and if this team keeps playing like they're playing right now, we'll be playing in September, October, so that's my goal."

Buchholz said he wasn't feeling 100 percent leading up to the April 11 game against the New York Mets when manager Pete Mackanin pulled him in the third inning. 

"I told [general manager Matt Klentak] that I was sorry, and the guys in here," Buchholz said. "I was brought here for a reason. I wanted to pitch, I wanted to be good. I guess it's a good thing we have a good farm system here because they've been able to step up and fill in."

Buchholz had a similar issue with the Boston Red Sox in July 2015 and missed the rest of the season. 

In his two starts with the Phillies, Buchholz allowed 10 runs and 19 baserunners over just 7 1/3 innings. 
 
Buchholz, 32, will become a free agent at the end of the season. Given his age and the possibility that he won't return this season, the injury could significantly affect his value heading into the offseason. He's the second-highest paid player on the Phillies' roster at $13.5 million

But Buchholz wants to build the strength in his forearm and continue to pitch in MLB following this season.

"There's a lot of guys that come back," Buchholz said. "I have a lot of buddies that played this game that have come back from major surgeries and played for eight or nine more years. It's all about once I do get healthy, being prepared and building a strong foundation around my muscles."