Phillies ride energy to walk-off win over Rockies

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Phillies ride energy to walk-off win over Rockies

BOX SCORE

For the second time in the last four games, Michael Young was the man at the plate for a walk-off win. For Wednesday night’s 4-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Citizens Bank Park, Young actually recorded an RBI with his walk-off piece (see Instant Replay).

But where would Young (or the Phillies) be without some table setters? In the game-winning ninth inning of Wednesday’s victory, it was a pair of catchers doing the heavy lifting.

Erik Kratz and Carlos Ruiz both smacked doubles in the ninth to lead the Phillies’ comeback. Kratz, the starting catcher for the game, led off the inning with the team trailing by a run with a hard double down the left-field line. A groundout by John Mayberry Jr. pushed pinch-runner Casper Wells to third before Ruiz dug in as a pinch hitter.

Three pitches later, Ruiz hit a low liner just inside the third-base line and hustled in to second with the game-tying RBI. An intentional walk to Jimmy Rollins brought up Young, who ended it on the first pitch he saw from Rockies’ closer Rafael Betancourt.

Manager Ryne Sandberg couldn’t have designed a better ending to the game if he tried.

“The ninth inning was big. Kratz with the leadoff double. [Mayberry] got him over and Ruiz with the pinch-hit double,” Sandberg said. “Ruiz has had a good homestand. He’s swinging with more authority and showing more pop in his bat. [That was] a big hit right there.”

Along with three wins in Sandberg’s first six games as manager of the Phillies, perhaps the biggest development as of late has been Ruiz’s reemergence as an offensive threat. Seemingly reeling in a lost season, marred by the 25-game suspension for improperly using the prescription drug Adderall, followed by a long stint on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, Ruiz picked the worst time to struggle.

With a winter of free agency looming and his 35th birthday drawing closer, the likelihood of a return to the Phillies in 2014 seemed remote. Ruiz won’t try to insult anyone’s intelligence by saying his pending free agency wasn’t on his mind.

“If I said no, I’d be lying to you,” Ruiz said. “It’s something I was thinking maybe not every day but once in a while. But who knows, it’s not in my hands. All that’s in my hands is to play hard and see what happens.”

But as it goes so often in baseball, things started to click for Ruiz. He hit his first three homers of the season after the All-Star break and is batting .333 with six extra-base hits in 17 games during August.

For Ruiz, it all started with a 4-for-4 game on Sunday, following by a 2-for-4 showing with a double and homer on Monday. In the last four games, Ruiz is 7 for 12 with three extra-base hits.

“He’s finally just getting his stroke,” Sandberg said. “He’s using the whole field. He’s found a little bit of a hot streak. He had a four-hit game a few days ago. It's a confidence builder there. He's had a nice homestand.”

Still, Ruiz had to wonder if it was ever going to come together for him. That was especially the case when he was batting just .235 in July after having missed 52 games. But Ruiz stuck with it and didn’t let himself get too down over the suspension or the hamstring injury.

Ruiz said it was just a matter of putting in the work before he was off and running.

“With everything that happened, it was tough for me,” Ruiz said. “I came back from the suspension, then I got hurt. It’s not an excuse but it was hard to pick it up. There’s nothing I can do about that, it’s in the past, so I’m going to do my best right now and hopefully I’ll do well.”

And if Ruiz can keep hitting as well as continuing to play his high-caliber of defense, the Phillies might not have too many better options at catcher than Ruiz. It certainly hasn’t hurt Ruiz’s cause that minor-league catching prospect Tommy Joseph has struggled with post-concussion symptoms this season. With Joseph’s arrival in the big leagues seemingly delayed, Ruiz could be the only in-house option for the Phillies.

According to Sandberg, there’s a lot Ruiz can do in the final 36 games to help his cause.

“I think these games, he has a chance to be evaluated and have the decision made,” Sandberg said. “From what I see, he's a leader on the team.”

Said Ruiz: “I’ll keep working and hopefully finish strong. We’ll see what happens when the season is over.”

Meanwhile, the Phillies won a game started by Cliff Lee for the first time since July 5, though the left-hander didn’t figure in the decision. In seven innings, Lee scattered nine hits and allowed just a pair of runs. He handed a tie game over to the bullpen in the eighth. That’s where the Rockies pieced together a run off Justin De Fratus.

Red-hot reliever Jake Diekman kept the Rockies in check in the ninth, which set the stage for the dramatics at the end.

For some reason, the Phillies felt like the night was going to end well.

Call it a hunch.

“I see the guys on the bench,” Sandberg said. “I see them at the top rail in the ninth inning. There is a lot of energy in the dugout. There are a lot of guys pulling for each other. That's all good. When you pull out a game like this that pays dividends and goes a long way for the games ahead of us.”

The Phillies and Rockies finish the four-game series on Thursday night when Kyle Kendrick (10-9, 4.48) takes on rookie right-hander Chad Bettis (0-2, 5.30).

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."