Phillies-Reds 5 things: More rain as Phils go for series win

Phillies-Reds 5 things: More rain as Phils go for series win

Phillies at Reds
12:35 p.m. on CSN and streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app

Some game notes ahead of the Phillies' series finale with the Reds Thursday afternoon at Great American Ball Park:

1. Buchholz's debut
Longtime Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz makes his Phillies debut and first-ever start in the National League after a rough spring.

Buchholz, 32, had a 6.65 ERA in six spring starts, allowing five home runs in 21 2/3 innings.

Buchholz is a reclamation project for GM Matt Klentak and the Phillies. They acquired him in December for minor-league second baseman Josh Tobias, who was expendable with the organization deep in second basemen (Cesar Hernandez, Scott Kingery, Jesmuel Valentin, perhaps Freddy Galvis once J.P. Crawford is called up).

It was a move similar to the Phillies' acquisition last offseason of Jeremy Hellickson from the Diamondbacks. That moved worked out as Hellickson has been the most solid and consistent he's been since his first two years in Tampa. 

But there's more reason for skepticism with Buchholz, who has alternated good and bad seasons in each of the last six. He also had seven trips to the DL from 2008-15.

Buchholz's last successful season was 2015, when he went 7-7 with a 3.26 ERA, 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.8 walks in 18 starts with Boston. 

The Phillies are hoping he pitches well enough in the season's first two months to become an enticing trade candidate. If that doesn't work out, well, it's not like they're committed to him. Buchholz is due $13.5 million this season before reaching free agency. If he stumbles over the first two months and Jake Thompson pitches well at Triple A, you could see Thompson up to take his place.

Buchholz has a pretty diverse repertoire. He has a four-seam fastball (about 93 mph), cutter, curveball, changeup and sinker, and last season he threw each of those pitches between 16 and 25 percent of the time.

2. Searching for offense
The Phillies made left-hander Brandon Finnegan look like an All-Star Wednesday night. He allowed just one hit (in the first inning) over seven shutout innings and struck out nine. 

It's the second straight year Finnegan shut the Phillies down in Game No. 2 of the season. Last April 6, he also struck out nine while allowing two runs over six innings in a Reds win.

Three of the Phillies' four hits last night were infield hits, so there was next to no offense to speak of. With a much different looking lineup on getaway day -- Brock Stassi, Daniel Nava and Andrew Knapp are starting -- they're hoping to do enough at the plate to leave Cincinnati with a series win over the lowly Reds.

Will they respond?

The Phillies had six games like this last season with no runs and four or fewer hits. On four of the six occasions, they lost the next day, three of them by one run.

3. Fitting name
The Phillies face Reds rookie Rookie Davis. Yes, a rookie named Rookie. His real name is William Davis, but he's had the nickname from his father since birth.

Davis, 23, was one of four prospects the Reds acquired from the Yankees in December 2015 for Aroldis Chapman. 

The 6-foot-5 right-hander spent most of last season at Double A before making a handful of starts at Triple A. All told, he went 10-5 with a 3.82 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 37 walks in 125 innings.

Davis is a strike-thrower with a 93-to-95 mph fastball, a mid-70s curveball and low-80s changeup. He doesn't project to miss a ton of bats at the major-league level.

4. First start for Stassi and Knapp
Pete Mackanin had already planned to play Brock Stassi and Andrew Knapp Thursday before Wednesday's 2-0 loss, and the Phils are hoping the infusion of two rookies breathes some life into the lineup. Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp were a combined 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts in the first two games.

For Stassi, it's the culmination of a long journey to the majors that was well-documented locally and nationally over the last week. Some nerves will be there for the 27-year-old, but at least he shook some of that off in the season opener with a pinch-hit walk.

With the left-handed hitting Stassi and switch-hitting Knapp in the lineup, Maikel Franco is the only true right-handed hitter in the Phillies' lineup Thursday.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Daniel Nava, LF (S)
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Andrew Knapp, C (S)
7. Brock Stassi, 1B (L)
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)
9. Clay Buchholz, P 

5. This and that
• After sitting through a rain delay last night, some more precipitation is in store for the Phillies and Reds Thursday. There is a 50 percent or better chance of rain through 5 p.m.

• Tommy Joseph sits after going 0 for 8 with five strikeouts in the first two games. Pitchers are usually ahead of hitters this early in the season, but Joseph also had difficulty catching up to fastballs at times last season. Mackanin isn't going to switch things up because of two games, but the situations bears watching. 

• How good has John Kruk been so far?

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph out, Rhys Hoskins back to 1B in opener vs. Nationals

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CSN

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph out, Rhys Hoskins back to 1B in opener vs. Nationals

The Phillies need just one more win to avoid losing 100 games this season. They'll hope to get it Monday night when they open their series against the Nationals.

Pete Mackanin has made several adjustments to the lineup that beat Atlanta on Sunday, 2-0, behind a strong start from Nick Pivetta (see observations).

Tommy Joseph is out, which means that Rhys Hoskins returns to first base. Hoskins is going through a rough stretch over the last few days, as he has only two hits in his last 17 at-bats.

Despite going 2 for 3 Sunday, Jorge Alfaro is replaced by Andrew Knapp, who plays for the first time since last Wednesday. Mackanin seems to be trying to give all three of his catchers chances to play over the final weeks of the season.

Aaron Altherr shifts down from second to fifth in the lineup. Altherr is hitting .289 vs. righties this season, compared to .236 against lefties. The Phillies face a righty tonight in Washington's A.J. Cole. In two appearances against the Phillies this year, Cole has allowed only one run in eight innings.

Aaron Nola kicks off the Phillies' final homestand on the mound. He has been stellar this year at Citizens Bank Park, where he is 9-4 with a 2.98 ERA. Nola has started against the Nationals three times in 2017, sporting a 1-0 record and 3.31 ERA in those outings. 

The Phillies' lineup can be found below: 

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Maikel Franco, 3B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Aaron Nola, SP

And the Nationals' lineup:

Nationals
1. Trea Turner, SS
2. Wilmer Difo, 3B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
4. Adam Lind, LF
5. Jayson Werth, RF
6. Michael Taylor, CF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Adrian Sanchez, 2B
9. A.J. Cole, P

After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

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AP Images

After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

His team had lost the previous two nights to the Atlanta Braves. Now, it was trying to hold a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning and salvage at least one game in the series.

So Pete Mackanin went to arguably his most dependable reliever.

Back in the final days of spring training, Adam Morgan was nearly cut from the Phillies. The team needed 40-man roster space and he was on the short list of considerations for the waiver wire. Morgan survived, squeaked onto the opening day roster as a mop-up man, then, two weeks into the season, was called into the manager's office and sent to Triple A Lehigh Valley for the fifth time in two seasons.

That meeting in Mackanin's office shook Morgan. He said little. He walked out, sat in front of the locker he'd soon have to vacate and began a three-day reflection period in which he seriously considered retiring from the game at age 27 and moving on to pursue his second career choice of being a firefighter in the Atlanta area, where he was raised.

Morgan was back in Atlanta on Sunday, a different kind of fireman.

He was the guy that Mackanin called upon to hold off the Braves in the eighth inning and get the ball to Hector Neris. Neris bobbed and weaved his way to recording his 18th consecutive save since June 28. Before that, Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning to lower his ERA to 0.75 since August 2. In that span, he has pitched 24 innings in 18 games. He has given up just 14 hits and two runs while walking four and striking out 28.

Not too shabby.

"Morgan continued to pitch well, did a great job," Mackanin said after the 2-0 win. "And Neris is Neris. He makes you nervous but gets the job done."

Several months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Mackanin calling on Morgan is such a tight situation. It also would have been difficult to imagine Morgan popping fastballs at 96.3 miles per hour, as he did Sunday, and setting up hitters with a tight, late-breaking slider. The combination has enhanced his changeup.

Morgan, a lefty, was a top starting pitching prospect with the Phillies, often compared to a young Cliff Lee, until a shoulder injury set him back in 2013 and 2014. He made it back from surgery in 2015, but his fastball never returned to form. He was moved to the bullpen last year and tried to reinvent himself as a finesse pitcher. The results were spotty. When he was sent to the minors after just two appearances back in April of this season, he was at an emotional crossroads. He told team officials that he was going to need all three days as allowed by baseball's labor agreement to report to Triple A.

"And maybe more," he said.

Morgan and his wife, Rachel, have spent the season living in hotels between Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. On April 11, the night he was sent to the minors, he returned to his Philadelphia hotel and continued the reflection that started in front of his locker.

"I thought long and hard about what I was going to do, if I wanted to do the whole shuttle back and forth to Lehigh, or if I wanted to even play anymore," he said. "I'm such a simple guy that it's the little things that make me happy. Being with my family makes me happy, cutting the grass makes me happy. I'd think to myself, 'Why am I showing up to the field and I'm not happy?"

Morgan thought about returning to school and finishing the criminal justice degree he'd begun at the University of Alabama. And he thought about pursuing a lifelong calling.

"I'd always wanted to be a firefighter," he said. "They're bad dudes. They're awesome. I've always wanted to do it. I've always liked the brotherhood those guys have. It's a little like baseball, the camaraderie, the clubhouse. I thought maybe it was time."

Morgan is a Southern gentleman, an earnest, good-hearted man of faith. As he continued to contemplate his future, he prayed, read the Bible and talked with his wife, his buddies and his mom and dad back home in suburban Atlanta.

He decided to report to Lehigh Valley.

"My dad always taught me once you start something, finish it, don't quit," Morgan said. "So I decided I was going to finish the year regardless then re-evaluate. It was not right to quit in the middle of the year."

Morgan made it back to the majors in May and was soon sent back to Triple A. He could handle it. He was at peace. When the Phillies needed pitching in early June, he returned to the majors. He's been there ever since. And with each successful appearance, he's earned the trust of his manager. The guy who was almost cut in spring training is now a go-to guy for Mackanin.

"I think what we're seeing is the real deal," Mackanin said. "It's there. We’ve been counting on him to do the job and he's done it."

In the seasons immediately after surgery, Morgan's fastball hovered around 90 mph. He has hit 97 often over the last couple of months. Morgan believes the jump in velocity is a result of his becoming more accustomed to a reliever's routine. It allows him to do more long-tossing during workouts and that has improved his arm strength. He has also become more confident. That has resulted in him letting the ball go with more conviction instead of choking it as a pitcher afraid of making a mistake would. Hitters must be ready for that extra velocity or get beaten by it, so it has made the rest of Morgan's pitches better.

An improved slider has also played a huge role in Morgan's turnaround. He knew he needed to sharpen the pitch. He and pitching coach Bob McClure talked about a number of different grips and Morgan began to experiment. Finally, as he played catch in the outfield one day with fellow pitcher Luis Garcia, another reliever who has shown signs of finally putting it together, Morgan found a grip that worked.

"Louie was like, 'Wow,' " Morgan said.

Morgan continued to work on the new slider. It's tighter and breaks later than his old one. It has become a weapon.

"His fastball is better and he's throwing an invisible slider," Mackanin said.

There has been an intangible quality to Morgan's improvement, as well. Some of it is as simple as what McClure says: It often takes a pitcher two or three years before he truly believes he can succeed in the majors, two or three years to relax and let his natural abilities shine. It's part of the mental game of baseball and Morgan has clearly made strides there.

"Things started to turn when I started to enjoy the game," he said. "I stopped putting pressure on myself because I knew this could be my last year. I was like, 'If this is it, I'm going to enjoy it.' Even in Triple A. We had a good group of guys. I was going to cheer for them and let the chips fall where they may.

"I stopped putting my worth on my stat sheet. That's where I lost sight of how much I enjoyed the game. As a reliever, one bad outing can mess up your stats so I stopped looking at it.

"I focused on my strengths instead of the hitter's weakness. I think I was tired of everybody telling me what my strengths were, like telling me how to pitch to be successful. People were trying to help me, but I think I just got exhausted with being a people pleaser and not taking care of myself and doing what I see as the right thing. I never lost confidence in my fastball even after surgery when it was 88 or 90. I feel like I'm pitching to my strengths. I don’t have to throw a curveball to this guy because he's a crappy curveball hitter. I can get him out different ways."

Morgan has gone from a waiver consideration to "for me, a definite," as far as being in the Phillies' bullpen plans for next season, Mackanin said.

But Morgan is taking nothing for granted.

"I don't think this is a fluke," he said. "But I know I have to keep showing it. You have to prove it every day up here. I don't think you can ever get comfortable in the big leagues. You always have to have that edge.

"Even though the season is coming to a close, I don’t want it to end. I have to keep doing my routine, my shoulder work, my long-toss. I'm still working, trying to get better."

Funny how things work out. In April, Adam Morgan was thinking about the end. Along the way, he found a new beginning.

"Wow," he said, exhaling. "It's just emotional even thinking about quitting."