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.

Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco lead Phillies to road win over Mariners

Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco lead Phillies to road win over Mariners

BOX SCORE

SEATTLE — Aaron Nola is a quiet, low-key Southern gentleman. Outward displays of emotion are not his thing.

But Nola made an exception Tuesday night.

After Maikel Franco made the play of the game to get Nola out of a jam in the seventh inning, the pitcher approached the third baseman in the dugout and …

"I gave him a hug," Nola said with a smile.

Franco's glove — and his bat — helped make a winner out of Nola and the Phillies as they rallied to beat the Seattle Mariners, 8-2, at Safeco Field (see Instant Replay).

"The game is about making pitches when they count, getting key hits and making good plays like that to help your pitcher out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We had a little bit of everything tonight. It was a lot of fun tonight."

Mackanin hasn't been able to say that a lot this season, particularly on the road where the Phillies have now won just 11 times in 42 games.

The Phillies came into this series in Seattle having lost three straight in Arizona and scoring just four runs in those losses. Then they were no-hit over the first four innings Tuesday night by Mariners lefty James Paxton.

The Mariners led, 2-0, thanks to a two-run homer by Jean Segura against Nola in the third. Franco led off the fifth with the Phillies' first hit, a double to right against Paxton, and that started a game-tying, two-run rally that featured two hits, a walk and two sacrifice flies.

The game turned for good in the seventh inning. Franco led off the frame with a solo home run — reliever Luis Garcia, one of Franco's best pals, caught the ball in his cap in the bullpen — to give the Phillies a 3-2 lead.

Nola survived a couple of jams early in the game then faced another big one in the bottom of the seventh inning. He gave up a pair of one-out singles before striking out Mike Zunino for the second out in the seventh. The strikeout, Nola's ninth of the game, came on his 112th pitch, the most of his career, and Mackanin quickly popped out of the dugout and walked briskly to the mound. Segura, who had taken Nola deep in the third inning, was due up. Was Mackanin going to take Nola out?

No.

"I just wanted to let him know that this was his game," Mackanin said. "He pitched so well up to that point, I wanted him to know it was his game, finish it for us."

Nola thought there was a chance Mackanin was coming to take him out.

"But once he asked how I felt, I knew I wasn't out," Nola said. "I told him I felt good and thought I could finish the inning."

Nola threw one more pitch. Segura hit it hard down the third-base line, but Franco laid out, made a diving stab and threw across the diamond for the third out. If Franco doesn't make the play, the game is tied and Nola doesn't get a win.

That's why Franco got a hug.

"Segura put a pretty decent swing on that curveball and Mikey made a heck of a play," Nola said. "He also hit a big home run. It was a good team win."

Franco might have the bubbliest personality in the clubhouse, but he hasn't had many opportunities to show it. There's been a lot of losing this season and his play has been inconsistent.

But Franco was able to enjoy this one.

"I don't know how I made that play," he said with a laugh. "That's the little things that win ballgames. Bottom of the seventh, two outs. It was a big play and I'm glad for me and I'm glad for Nola. He did a good job."

And how about that hug?

"Oh, yeah," Franco said with a smile. "He said, 'Nice play, that's a sick play.'"

With two important extra-base hits and a game-saving defensive play, Franco once again showed how special he could be if he could add consistency to his game.

"I keep waiting for it and it's good to see little by little," Mackanin said. "I'd like to see him do it more often. He's capable of it. We've seen him do it in the past."

The Phillies got some good relief work from Joaquin Benoit then blew the game open in the eighth and ninth innings against the Seattle bullpen. Aaron Altherr hit a two-run homer and Freddy Galvis drove in a pair of runs with a pair of singles.

Galvis voiced his frustration with all the losing on Monday and urged his teammates to show more effort (see story). He backed up his words with three hits.

Timely hitting, clutch defense, good relief work and, of course, a second straight strong start from Nola.

We haven't been able to say it often this season, but this was a good win.

"When that starter gives you seven innings, it makes it a little easier," Mackanin said. "Nola made pitches when he had to. He really kept us in the game."

And Franco did the rest.

Instant Replay: Phillies 8, Mariners 2

Instant Replay: Phillies 8, Mariners 2

BOX SCORE

SEATTLE — Aaron Nola pitched well and Maikel Franco came up huge with his bat and his glove in leading the Phillies to an 8-2 win over the Seattle Mariners in an interleague game on Tuesday night.

Nola won his second straight start to improve to 5-5.

Franco gave Nola a 3-2 lead with a tiebreaking, leadoff homer in the top of the seventh then preserved the lead with a sensational diving play to end the bottom of the inning.

Freddy Galvis had three singles and drove in two important runs late in the game.

The win was just the Phillies' 11th in 42 games on the road this season. They are 25-51 overall.

Starting pitching report
Nola reached a career-high of 113 pitches over seven gutsy innings. He gave up five hits and two runs and got a bunch of big outs with men on base. He walked four and struck out nine.

Nola got out of jams with two men on base three times, including in the bottom of the seventh when he preserved a one-run lead by striking out Mike Zunino and getting Jean Segura on a groundball to third. Franco made a tremendous diving play on the ball to end the inning and prevent the tying run from scoring.

Nola has won two straight starts. He has pitched 14 1/3 innings over that span, allowed just three runs and racked up 17 strikeouts.

Lefty James Paxton did not give up a hit until the fifth inning. He allowed three runs in seven innings of work. He gave up Franco's go-ahead homer.

Bullpen report
Joaquin Benoit pitched a scoreless eighth inning to preserve a two-run lead.

The Seattle bullpen allowed five runs in two innings.

At the plate
Franco ignited a game-tying, two-run rally in the top of the fifth. He led off that inning with a double, the Phillies' first hit. Cameron Perkins followed with an infield hit and Cameron Rupp drew a walk. The Phillies then scored a pair of runs on consecutive sacrifice fly balls by Ty Kelly and Daniel Nava. Galvis followed with a single and third base coach Juan Samuel got a little too aggressive in sending Rupp from second base. Rupp was cut down at the plate.

Franco's go-ahead homer in the seventh was his 10th of the season. Galvis pushed home an insurance run in the eighth. He followed Nava's leadoff double with an RBI single. Galvis drove home another run with a hit in the top of the ninth and Aaron Altherr put it out of reach with a two-run homer, his 13th of the season.

Segura smacked a two-run homer in the third to give the Mariners a 2-0 lead.

In the field
Franco made a diving stab on Segura's smash down the third-base line to end the seventh inning and keep the Phils up by a run.

A night off
Odubel Herrera, he of several recent miscues and lapses in concentration, did not start Tuesday night. Manager Pete Mackanin said it was a night off, not a benching. Herrera said he has to start playing smarter baseball (see story).

Health check
Jerad Eickhoff, on the disabled list with an upper-back strain, will throw a bullpen session on Wednesday. That will help determine if he's ready to return in the coming days.

Up next
The two-game series concludes on Wednesday afternoon. Rookie right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. (1-0, 3.60) pitches against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez (3-2, 4.68). Leiter pitched six scoreless innings in his first big-league start Friday in Arizona.