Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson looks to get Phillies, self on track

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson looks to get Phillies, self on track

Phillies (14-24) at Pirates (18-23)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Losers of 15 of their last 18 games, the Phillies head to Pittsburgh for a winnable three-game set vs. the unremarkable Pirates.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes to get the Phillies, and himself, back on track vs. 25-year old Trevor Williams, making his fourth career start. 

Here are five things to watch for tonight’s game:

1. Righting the ship
The Phillies send Hellickson to the mound to stop the bleeding, for himself and the team. Hellickson looked like a legitimate Cy Young candidate in his five March?April starts, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, allowing just six earned runs. 

As good as Hellickson was in April, he has been equally bad in May. In three May starts, the righty hasn’t gone more than five innings, while racking up a 7.90 ERA for the month. The Phillies’ de facto ace allowed as many runs on May 2 vs. the Cubs as he did in five March/April starts. 

When Hellickson was on fire in the opening month of the season, he wasn’t striking out many batters — just 11 in five games. What made Hellickson so successful was his ability to induce weak contact and let the defense take care of the rest. That’s not a very sustainable attack and we've seen the proof in May. Hellickson is getting bruised by batters this month. Hitters have a .234 average off Hellickson on groundballs, but the righty is giving up more hard-hit line drives recently. Batters are hitting .522 on line drives off Hellickson, leading to a drastic increase in home runs from April — two in five starts — to May — seven in three starts.

To be fair, Hellickson has faced probably the two best lineups in baseball in his last three starts — at the Cubs and twice vs. the Nationals. That will change tonight vs. the Pirates, who have scored the fourth-fewest runs in all of baseball.

With the bullpen's recent struggles (see: the Rangers series), the Phillies need Hellickson to revert to his April form tonight. With a depleted bullpen, the Phillies recalled Adam Morgan from Triple A Friday to replace Nick Pivetta on the 25-man roster. Morgan will likely be sent down when Aaron Nola returns after missing a month with a lower back strain Sunday.

2.  Bad teams going in different directions
The Phillies have lost six straight series en route to a 3-15 record in their last 18. That may change this weekend in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are in a familiar position for Phillies fans — caught somewhere in the vast wasteland of not-so-distant contention in recent years, and a team that needs to retool in the coming seasons. 

The Pirates’ season received a death blow in mid-April when outfielder Starling Marte — arguably the Pirates’ best player — was dealt an 80-game suspension for PED use.

The Pirates don’t score many runs, but their bright spot has been pitching. Pirates’ pitching ranks 12th in earned runs, fourth in walks allowed and 10th in home runs allowed. Those aren’t great numbers, but compare them to the Phillies’ numbers, and things begin to look a bit different. Phils’ pitching ranks 29th in ERA and batting average against and 30th in home runs. Yikes.

3. McCutchen on the decline
If you haven’t paid attention to the Pirates in a while — and honestly, why would you? — you might still think of Andrew McCutchen as the Pirates’ perennial MVP-candidate centerfielder. Now 30 years old, McCutchen is on the downside of his career. Since his monster 2012 season (.327, 31 home runs, 96 RBIs), McCutchen’s numbers have dropped in every season since, with a particular dropoff over the past two seasons. Now in right field, the former All-Star is hitting just .220, with almost as many strikeouts (29) as hits (33). Sadly, like his pop, even the dreadlocks are gone.

4. Don't forget Tommy Joseph
While Aaron Altherr has gotten much of the attention for his outstanding play in May, Tommy Joseph has matched him every step of the way. Joseph is hitting .383 in May — 30 percentage points higher than Altherr —with five homers, 11 RBIs and seven walks this month. After a disastrous opening month of the season, Joseph has put to rest any talk of the Phillies’ calling up Rhys Hoskins from the minors, and deservedly so.

5. This and that
• Friday will be just Hellickson's second-career start at PNC Park. Hellickson went 5 1/3 innings while giving up one run for the Diamondbacks in 2015.

• The Phillies have never faced Williams, who has a 7.88 ERA in two starts this season.

• The Pirates are 12-16 since Marte's suspension. 

Best of MLB: Cubs take control in NL Central with win over Brewers

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Best of MLB: Cubs take control in NL Central with win over Brewers

MILWAUKEE -- Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella drew a bases-loaded walk off All-Star closer Corey Knebel with one out in the 10th inning, helping the Chicago Cubs beat the Milwaukee Brewers 5-4 on Friday night to tighten their grip on the NL Central.

The Cubs hold a five-game lead with nine days left in the regular season after winning their second straight tense game over the Brewers. Milwaukee dropped into third in the division, 5 1/2 games behind Chicago, after St. Louis beat Pittsburgh earlier Friday.

The Brewers had the tying run at first with one out in the bottom of the 10th, but Eric Sogard was called out at second trying to advance on a ball in the dirt. Shortstop Addison Russell appeared to hold the tag as Sogard's foot lifted off second for a split-second, and the call was confirmed on review (see full recap).

Ryan Goins' hidden-ball trick, grand slam lead Blue Jays over Yankees
TORONTO -- Ryan Goins successfully pulled off a hidden ball trick and hit his second career grand slam, leading the Toronto Blue Jays over Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees 8-1 Friday night and ensuring New York had to wait at least one more day to clinch a playoff berth.

With Todd Frazier on base following a leadoff double in the third, Jose Bautista made a running catch just in front of the right field warning track on Jacoby Ellsbury's one-out drive. Goins caught Bautista's throw while standing near second base, then pretended to toss the ball to pitcher Marco Estrada while slipping in into his glove.

Goins turned his back to Frazier, who had returned to the base, and when Frazier briefly lifted his left foot off the base, Goins tagged him on the left thigh. Frazier insisted he had maintained contact with the base, but umpire Mark Carlson called him out to end the inning (see full recap).

Red Sox rally for win over Reds, extend AL East lead
CINCINNATI -- Rafael Devers hit a three-run homer Friday night, and the Boston Red Sox extended their AL East lead to four games by overcoming Scooter Gennett's fourth grand slam of the season for a 5-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Boston added to its lead with the help of the Yankees' 8-1 loss at Toronto. The Red Sox have won 12 of 15, keeping the Yankees at bay while moving a season-high 25 games over .500 (89-64).

Their AL Cy Young Award winner is still struggling heading into playoff time.

Rick Porcello gave up Gennett's fourth grand slam -- a Reds' season record -- in the first inning. He lasted a season-low four innings, turning a 5-4 lead over to the bullpen. Porcello has lost 17 games -- most in the majors -- after winning 22 last year along with the Cy Young (see full recap).

Cardinals rally past Pirates in 9th
PITTSBURGH -- Randal Grichuk scored after an error by Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, capping a frantic ninth-rally that lifted the surging St. Louis Cardinals over Pittsburgh 4-3 on Friday night.

The playoff-chasing Cardinals won their fifth straight, despite trailing by a run entering the ninth.

Stephen Piscotty led off with a double to right against closer Felipe Rivero (5-3), and Jedd Gyorko followed with a pinch-hit RBI single. After Tommy Pham's single, Grichuk pinch-ran for Gyorko at third. He scored when Mercer misplayed Dexter Fowler's sharp groundball.

Former Pirates reliever Juan Nicasio (4-5) got the win after working the eighth and ninth. Fowler and Piscotty had two hits each.

David Freese had an RBI double for the Pirates, who have dropped eight of nine. Rivero blew a save for only the second time in 20 chances this season (see full recap).

Twins stay on track in postseason race with win over Tigers
DETROIT -- Max Kepler and Brian Dozier homered, Byron Buxton had three hits and the playoff-chasing Minnesota Twins beat the Detroit Tigers 7-3 on Friday night.

Buxton's two-run double in the fourth put the Twins ahead to stay against a Detroit team that announced before the game that manager Brad Ausmus will not be back in 2018.

Minnesota came into the night leading the race for the American League's second wild card by 2 games over Texas and the Los Angeles Angels.

Kyle Gibson (12-10) allowed three runs and five hits in seven innings for the Twins. He struck out six and walked two.

Daniel Norris (4-8) allowed five runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings.

Nicholas Castellanos and Ian Kinsler homered for Detroit, but the Tigers dropped to 4-18 in September (see full recap).

Ben Lively, a fighter, can't recover from disastrous 1st inning in Phillies' loss to Braves

Ben Lively, a fighter, can't recover from disastrous 1st inning in Phillies' loss to Braves

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ATLANTA — A few hours before Friday night's game against the Atlanta Braves, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin had some words of praise for his starting pitcher, Ben Lively.

"He's just very competitive," Mackanin said of the 25-year-old right-hander. "His stuff is pretty ordinary, but he's deceptive in his delivery and he locates his fastball well.

"He's the kind of guy if you ever got in a fight with him, you'd have to kill him because he never gives up."

Lively lived up to some of his manager's words Friday night, but not all of them. He didn't give up. That's for sure. On a night when he was cut early as they say in the fight business, he managed to stick around for five innings and preserve some bullpen arms.

But the location of his fastball was not crisp. The Braves' first six hitters of the game all reached base on hits (three singles, two doubles and a homer) and five of them scored.

The night ended with the Phillies absorbing a 7-2 loss (see observations).

"Bad first inning," Mackanin said. "Very poor control, command in that first inning. Then he settled down and gave us some good innings. But that first inning, he didn't hit his spots and he didn't change speeds very much. He got hurt. We were out of the game after that first inning."

Mackanin seemed irked that Lively didn't show more breaking balls in the first inning. Only two of Lively's first 15 pitches were breaking balls. He threw all fastballs to the first three hitters and gave up a double, an RBI single and an RBI double.

"I was just trying to find my fastball early in the game," Lively said. "Fifteen pitches too late. The big thing in my game is my fastball. It doesn't help when the fastball is fading toward the middle of the plate.

"Just one of those days."

Lively gave up a sixth run in the second inning and finished with three scoreless frames.

"Really, I just started establishing the inside corner," he said. "It made all my breaking stuff better."

The Phillies were never in the game, not after trailing 5-0 and 6-0. Rookie Nick Williams drove in both of the Phillies' runs with a sacrifice fly and a base hit. He has 52 RBIs in 75 games. Twenty-two of his RBIs have come this month. Williams had two of the Phillies' six hits. Cesar Hernandez walked three times and doubled.

Atlanta rookie Sean Newcomb gave up just two runs over 5 1/3 innings.

Lively joined the Phillies organization before the 2015 season. He came over from Cincinnati for Marlon Byrd. He rose to the majors earlier this season and had mostly impressed, delivering a quality start in nine of his first 13 outings before this one. He is 3-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 14 starts.

The Phillies have bodies in the starting pitching department. But a number of them — Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin — have gone down with injuries this season. All three of these pitchers will be ready to go for spring training, but none are assured opening day jobs, according to Mackanin. Lively's work this season and his good health make him a solid candidate to be in the rotation in April, but nothing is certain. The Phillies front office will surely add pitching through trades and free-agent signings in the offseason, a factor that could change the mix.

Mackanin was noncommittal when asked about the possibility of Lively being in next season's rotation.

"He's in the mix for a chance to make the team," Mackanin said. "Nobody is locked in, other than (Aaron) Nola, for me."

Lively would like to end the season by leaving a good impression on the front office. He lines up to make his final start of the season next week at home.

"I'm not happy with this one," Lively said. "The last game of the season, I have to be ready to battle and end the season on a good note."

The loss left the Phillies at 61-93 (.396). With a week to go in the season, they are still in the running to have the worst record in baseball and get the No. 1 pick in next year's draft. But they have company. The White Sox are 62-91 (.405), the Tigers 62-92 (.403) and the Giants 60-94 (.390).

It's a sprint to the basement.