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: Solo homers power Cubs to win over Giants

Best of MLB: Solo homers power Cubs to win over Giants

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist hit solo homers, spot starter Eddie Butler pitched five effective innings and the Chicago Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 5-1 on Thursday for their third straight win.

Mike Montgomery followed with four scoreless innings and allowed one hit in his first save.

Heyward went deep for the second time in three games and Zobrist added two singles as the Cubs took three of four games in a set with the Giants and finished a homestand at 7-2 (see full recap).

Cruz blast helps Mariners top Nationals
WASHINGTON -- Nelson Cruz greeted reliever Jacob Turner with a go-ahead, three-run homer in the sixth inning, and the Seattle Mariners beat the Washington Nationals 4-2 Thursday to stop a five-game losing streak.

Gio Gonzalez took a 2-0 lead into the sixth, when Jean Segura singled leading off and Guillermo Heredia took a called third strike. That prompted Seattle manager Scott Servais to complain from the dugout, which led to his ejection by plate umpire Adam Hamari.

Robinson Cano singled, and Washington manager Dusty Baker brought in Turner (2-3), despite Cruz having just one hit in 15 at-bats against Gonzalez. Cruz drove a belt-high slider over the fence in left-center for his 12th homer this season and a 3-2 lead. Cruz leads the AL with 40 RBIs.

Cano added an RBI single off Turner in the seventh. Seattle scored multiple runs for the first time since May 18 (see full recap).

Andriese, Rasmus help Rays blank Angels
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Matt Andriese allowed six hits over eight innings, Colby Rasmus drove in four runs and the Tampa Bay Rays salvaged a split of a four-game series with Los Angeles by beating the Angels 4-0 on Thursday.

Andriese (5-1) improved to 4-0 over his last five starts, holding the Angels to 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Los Angeles threatened in five innings against the right-hander.

Rasmus had a pair of key two-out hits with the bases loaded: a two-run single in the first and a fifth-inning double that made it 4-0.

Tommy Hunter got three outs to complete a six-hitter (see full recap).

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph is making the Phillies' situation at first base quite tricky.

Joseph on Thursday continued building on his red-hot month of May by going 2 for 5 with a game-tying homer in the seventh and a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning of the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's hit .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

That'll hold off the eye-popping production of Rhys Hoskins for now (see Future Phillies Report).

Extending it further, Joseph has played 148 career games with 499 plate appearances in the majors. That's just a bit less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. He's provided above-average offensive production from first base.

Most Phillies fans know Joseph's story — big-time catching prospect acquired from the Giants in the 2012 Hunter Pence trade, series of concussions, position switch, hot start to 2016 at Triple A, promotion, production.

It was a long, winding road for Joseph, and when he was asked Thursday if he expected to be this solid 500 plate appearances into his major-league career, he brought up health.

"My goals were to be healthy, to be able to play in 162 games and that's all I really want to be able to do," Joseph said. "That's something I haven't been able to do in my career and it's something that I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to the challenge to go through the mental challenge and the physical challenge and I'd say that's my No. 1 goal, that's my only goal. Because if I'm able to stay healthy and stay on the field then I'm able to enjoy this great game and getting to share it with my teammates."

As for the May adjustments, Joseph said the standard things about communicating with hitting coach Matt Stairs, working in the cage and staying consistent with his approach. His timing wasn't there in April but it's certainly been there in May.

"There's no telling what clicks in a guy, it's just a matter of making a minor adjustment sometimes, possibly getting better pitches to hit," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's no telling what it is, but he just looks a lot more comfortable at the plate."

Bullpen bouncing back
It's been completely overshadowed by the Phillies' recent skid but the bullpen has pitched very well of late. The unit that was overworked and criticized in April has combined to allow just two earned runs in its last 22 2/3 innings. On Thursday, six Phillies relievers — Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez — pitched six scoreless innings.

Neshek made the play of the day, diving and landing on his head to snag a pop-up bunt attempt before turning and firing to first base for the double play.

"I said early on that I think it's one of our strengths," Mackanin said of the bullpen. "And after today you can see why I have a lot of confidence in them."

Neshek, who has pitched in the postseason for four different teams, said Thursday that he thinks this is one of the best bullpens he's ever been around. It's not lip service, either. The unit was terrible in April, there's no getting around that. But some of that really did have to do with the overuse. Setup men were entering in the sixth inning. Opportunities for holds and saves were few and far between. Roles were not defined.

Stuff-wise, repertoire-wise, there is a lot to like about the Phillies' bullpen. Neris, Benoit and Neshek all offer vastly different looks and have track records of success.

While Neshek didn't totally endorse Benoit's comments from a few weeks ago that everything would settle down once the relievers knew specifically which inning they'd pitch, he did say that he too feels most comfortable coming in during a hold opportunity.

"I think my numbers show that I'm best in those situations, coming into a hold opportunity when we're ahead," Neshek said. "We haven't had much of those lately."

The horrendous start to the season for the Phillies' relievers will skew their stats all season long, but it's nice to see that at least one aspect of this team is starting to get into a groove.