Phillies-Reds 5 things: Deeper Phils lineup has soft test to open 2017

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Deeper Phils lineup has soft test to open 2017

Phillies (0-0) at Reds (0-0)
4:10 p.m. on CSN (and streaming live on CSNPhilly.com)

After 37 exhibition games in a spring training that seemed like it would never end, the Phillies are at Great American Ballpark Monday and this one counts.

The Phils open in Cincinnati for the second straight season against a Reds team that lost 94 games last year and could do the same again in 2017.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have their new-look lineup after finishing last season as the majors' worst offensive team. 

Let's take a look at the season opener, Game 1 of 162:

1. Deeper lineup
Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders were not massive additions, but they're competent offensive players who add a few elements the 2016 Phillies lacked.

Kendrick is coming off a down season in L.A. He hit .255/.326/.366 in 543 plate appearances, numbers substantially worse than what he put up the previous 10 seasons. Over the previous decade, Kendrick hit .293/.333/.423.

If he's the 2006-15 Howie Kendrick, he'll improve the top of the Phillies' order by being a traditional two-hole hitter. Kendrick can do the little, cliche but valuable things like put the ball in play with a man in scoring position and less than two outs, or go the other way when the situation calls for it. He can also hit -- and if he does, Phillies fans are going to fall in love with that batting stance.

Saunders comes in to add protection in the middle of the order and give the Phillies a left-handed bat with pop to split up the righties. He figures to slot in fifth or sixth on any given night.

The Saunders signing, like the trade for Kendrick, was an extremely low risk with a chance for a decent reward. Saunders hit 24 homers, 32 doubles and three triples last season, even though he slumped during the second half and wasn't good with runners in scoring position. Even if Saunders comes here and has another below-average year with RISP, those extra-base hits still play.

The Phillies scored 610 runs last season, 39 fewer than any other team. That's 3.77 per game. 

The major-league team smack-dab in the middle last year scored 724. For the Phillies to go from worst to even middle of the pack, they'd have to score about 115 more runs -- or about five more per week.

2. Year 3 for Herrera

Odubel Herrera was rewarded by the Phillies in December with a five-year, $30.5 million contract that buys out all three of his arbitration years and his first would-be year of free agency.

That deal was a major sign of confidence for a player the Rangers had given away just two years earlier, and the Phillies feel good about it because it's team friendly if Herrera maintains his current level.

In 1,193 plate appearances his first two seasons, Herrera hit .291 with a .353 on-base percentage. He stole 25 bases and hit 15 home runs last season after stealing 16 and hitting eight as a rookie. His OBP was 17 points higher, largely because of an impressively patient month of April when Herrera walked 23 times and had a .462 OBP.

He's legitimately good. Pete Mackanin thinks Herrera has batting-title potential and he's not wrong -- Herrera has speed, he sprays the ball all over the place, beats out infield hits, and most of the time he can control an at-bat and get himself into a favorable count.

And he has 20-homer potential. Of the 15 he hit last season, more than a few were no-doubters. 

3. Year 3 for Franco
Herrera is looking to kick things up a notch. Franco has even more to prove. 

The Phillies' 24-year-old third baseman entered last season with high and perhaps unfair expectations. He had hit .280 with a .810 OPS, 14 homers, 22 doubles and 50 RBIs in 80 games in 2015. The ensuing spring, Mackanin, Mike Schmidt, and others around the Phillies gushed about him. 

Franco hit bombs in Clearwater, and he started out 2016 hot, but by May 1 he was hitting .258 with a .310 on-base percentage and he hit almost exactly that the next 129 games.

That's not good enough, even if Franco hit 25 homers and drove in 88. The Phillies are looking for him to become a complete hitter, a more selective and disciplined hitter who isn't pull-pull-pull, all-or-nothing.

4. Hellickson vs. Feldman
Jeremy Hellickson gets the opening day nod in Cincy for the Phillies for the second year in a row. Last year, he was rock solid in the opener, allowing an unearned run on three hits over six innings with no walks and six strikeouts.

In many ways, it was a sign of things to come for Hellickson. He was efficient, he commanded the strike zone, fooled hitters with changeups and allowed fewer hits than innings pitched.

That was the first of 16 starts in which Hellickson allowed two runs or less. The Phillies won 13 of them. With a better offense and a deeper bullpen that now includes Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek in addition to Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, they should have a similar winning percentage if Hellickson can replicate that consistency.

This is a good matchup for Hellickson against a bad Reds team that returns Joey Votto (.434 OBP in 2017), Adam Duvall (33 HR) and Billy Hamilton (171 steals last three seasons, career .297 OBP) but has little else.

Hellickson should be able to take advantage of guys like Jose Peraza, Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler and Zack Cozart with his veteran repertoire that includes an elite changeup. Hellickson's opponents hit .168 last season against his changeup, the second-best mark in the National League behind only Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs (.133).

The Reds, who have probably the worst rotation in the majors, are going with 34-year-old right-hander Scott Feldman. He's a sinker-cutter-curveball guy who rarely tops 91 mph. 

Feldman signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Astros before 2014 and ended up going 18-20 with a 3.64 ERA there. He spent most of last season as a reliever.

Feldman is your typical fifth starter, a pitcher with a 4.40 career ERA who doesn't strike many hitters out (5.6 per nine) and allows about a .270 batting average and a homer per game.

Kendrick has hit Feldman well, going 12 for 28 with a double and a homer. Saunders is 3 for 14 with a homer, seven RBIs and seven strikeouts. The only other Phillies hitter to face him is Daniel Nava, who's 6 for 16 with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• The forecast calls for rain. A lot of rain. As of Sunday night, the rain was supposed to start pretty heavy around 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., slow down a bit and then pick back up around 8 p.m. This one might not get played.

• Jim Salisbury, Marshall Harris and I made a bunch of off-beat projections for the Phillies' season. Check it out here.

• Jeanmar Gomez enters the season as the Phillies' closer but who knows who's filling that role by mid-May. Gomez, never a closer before 2016, had a 2.97 ERA and 34 saves in 38 chances entering last September. Then he gave up 17 earned in eight innings in the final month and his ERA ballooned to 4.85. 

Mackanin is going with Gomez for now because he did an admirable job for most of the season, and because it would be tough to go back to Gomez as closer if he picked someone else out camp and that guy failed.

But with Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek, the Phillies have a pretty good back-end of their bullpen, three different pitchers who offer three different looks. Neris has the big fastball-elite splitter combo, Benoit has a very good fastball and changeup still, and Neshek has one of the funkiest right-handed deliveries in baseball.

• Joey Votto is ridiculous. Do you realize that last year from June 1-on, he hit .378 with a .482 on-base percentage? That's Barry Bonds-like, and it was a sample of 465 plate appearances. Votto's a perennial MVP candidate trapped on a horrible team, but it's tough to feel bad for a guy who will have made more than $273 million by the time his contract expires.

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."