Relievers' pivotal eighth inning ensures Phillies' win

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Relievers' pivotal eighth inning ensures Phillies' win

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Carlos Ruiz pumped his fist once toward pitcher Jeremy Horst, and dashed back to the dugout as if he was part of a big prank and that he couldn’t believe he got away with it.

Perhaps as a result of the Phillies’ 6-2 victory over the hard-hitting Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay), maybe they did get away with something.

Horst fired just four pitches — all fastballs — to escape a first-and-third jam in the eighth inning with a strikeout against the Indians. As a result, Horst was the unlikely setup man in manager Charlie Manuel’s patchwork maneuvering of the bullpen. With regular setup man Mike Adams unavailable because of back spasms for the second straight game, Manuel needed three pitchers to get the three outs in the inning.

It came together brilliantly.

Antonio Bastardo faced the first three batters in the eighth, allowing a leadoff triple to Asdrubal Cabrera and a walk to Carlos Santana sandwiched around a strikeout against cleanup hitter Nick Swisher.

With runners at the corners and one out, Manuel turned to righty Justin De Fratus in his second outing of the season after throwing six pitches for the win in his debut last Sunday in Arizona. On Tuesday against slugger Mark Reynolds, De Fratus threw two fastballs. One was a strike and the other was a broken-bat pop out for the second out.

De Fratus gave way to Horst and four pitches later, Ruiz was grinning and running away from the batting circle after an inning-ending strikeout. In the bottom of the eighth, the Phillies added a pair of runs to ensure that rookie Jonathan Pettibone picked up his third straight win in five starts.

Pettibone is the first Phillies starting pitcher to begin his career 3-0 since Randy Wolf went 5-0 before his first loss in 1999.

Regardless, Pettibone doesn’t get that third win if it wasn’t for the work in the eighth inning from the bullpen. Better yet, in a big spot of the game, the much-maligned Phils' relievers stepped into a crucial spot and came through.

“Those are the spots you want to pitch in as a reliever,” De Fratus said. “You just go out there and attack the zone and hope for the best.”

For a relief corps that entered the game with a 4.00 ERA, an opponents’ batting average that ranked 12th in the National League and the worst success rate with inherited runners, the eighth inning was a true confidence builder.

So with Adams unavailable, Manuel said he leaned on the matchups when deciding which pitcher to use in the eighth. Considering De Fratus has faced only one player on the Indians in the big leagues and Horst retired Brantley two weeks ago in Cleveland, those were Manuel’s best options.

Though the sample size was miniscule, the amount of confidence gained was immeasurable.

“We got the guys some experience and if they do the job, we build their confidence, too,” Manuel said. “That’s not bad.”

That was especially the case for De Fratus, who was making just his 20th big-league appearance and just his second appearance in a game that wasn’t played in September or October. To step in a situation with runners on first and third to face the hitter leading the American League in homers was no small feat.

That is if De Fratus was even thinking about whom he was facing when he reared back and gave Reynolds heat.

“The plan there knowing we never faced each other is to go out there and give him a good heater and see if he sees me,” De Fratus said. “Then I’d throw pitches off of that. So based on the first pitch I felt confident enough to come back with the heater.”

De Fratus needed just two of them to splinter Reynolds’ bat.

“The goal is to go out there and get outs and preserve the lead,” De Fratus said. “But it’s definitely a cool feeling to go out there in the eighth inning in a tight situation against a big-time hitter. It’s a lot of fun and I hope to get the chance to do it again.”

Depending on when Adams is next available, De Fratus could find himself back in another tight spot soon. In two appearances, the right-hander has thrown eight pitches for two outs and already has a win and a hold.

Talk about efficiency.

Meanwhile, the Phillies showed a bit of offense in holding off the Indians. Kevin Frandsen opened the game with a homer in the first inning and the Phillies tacked on two more to take the lead they would never relinquish with John Mayberry’s two-run double in the fourth.

Domonic Brown slugged a solo homer (his seventh) in the sixth before Mayberry singled home an insurance run in the eighth and came around to score on Freddy Galvis’ two-out single just three batters later.

The Phillies go for the sweep of the mini-series on Wednesday afternoon when Cole Hamels (1-5, 4.18) faces righty Cory Kluber (2-2, 5.64).

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Howard, Phils can spoil Mets' season

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Howard, Phils can spoil Mets' season

Phillies (70-89) vs. Mets (85-74)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

Just three games remain in the Phillies' season. After a 24-17 start, the season went predictably downhill. However, the Phils have a chance to play spoiler to a big-time rival with the New York Mets in town. Alec Asher is on the hill for the Phillies while Robert Gsellman faces the Phillies for a third times this year.

Here are five things to watch on Friday night.

1. End of the road for the Big Ticket
There are just three games left in Ryan Howard's tenure with the Phillies.

It's been a long ride for Howard. There'll be plenty on Howard this weekend (and there's a pregame ceremony for him on Sunday), but here are some of his stats from his 13 years in Philadelphia.

Howard has hit 381 home runs and has 1,192 RBI with the Phils. He has 10 seasons of at least 20 home runs and has a run of six straight seasons from 2006 to 2011, his first six full seasons, with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI. He twice walked more than 100 times in a season and he racked up 276 doubles.

The long-time first baseman has hit 47 home runs against the Mets, his second highest total against any team (52 vs. Atlanta). In 174 games, Howard has 157 hits and 73 walks against the Mets.

Howard goes into the weekend with 197 home runs at Citizens Bank Park. Overall, he's racked up 1,465 total bases at CBP. He has, however, struck out 880 times in 769 games there as well.

2. Playing spoilers
While the Phillies are firmly outside of the playoff race, the New York Mets are in the driver's seat for a wild card spot. The Phillies could have something to say about that.

The San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals both won on Thursday while the Mets were off. That leaves the Mets one game ahead of the Giants for the first wild card spot and two games up on the Cardinals for a playoff spot. 

If the Mets win two of three this weekend, they clinch homefield advantage in the Wild Card game on Wednesday. With one win, they guarantee that they cannot be eliminated this weekend. Their magic number is two to clinch a playoff berth, so a combination of wins and Cardinals' losses can get them into the postseason. 

The Phillies can throw a wrench into the Mets' gameplan with a strong showing this weekend. While they've lost six of seven, the Phillies will likely get up for games with playoff implications. Furthermore, the Mets have the incentive to clinch as soon as possible as to avoid needing Noah Syndergaard to pitch on Sunday, so they can hold him for the National League wild card game on Wednesday.

3. Asher closes out impressive month 
Asher has made four starts since coming up earlier this month and has been much more impressive than his late season stint in 2015. 

After going 0-6 with a 9.31 ERA last year, he's 2-0 with a 1.66 ERA. However, despite picking up a win last weekend against the Mets, he struggled late and left room for improvement. 

Asher began his start Saturday vs. the Mets with a perfect game through three innings. He worked around three baserunners in the fourth inning, but came unglued after a couple errors in the fifth inning. While poor defense is not his fault, it would have been a good sign if he could have picked up his defense. Instead, he barely made it through the inning after four unearned runs.

Normally, a team would look for length out of their starter when handed such a large lead, so Asher only making it through five is disappointing. He still hasn't allowed more than two earned runs and has induced plenty of weak contact with his two-seam fastball.

The Mets will be the first (and only) team he faces twice this season.

4. Third time the charm vs. Gsellman?
Gsellman will be making his seventh career MLB start on Friday and it will be his third against the Phillies.

In two starts against the Phils, Gsellman is 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA over 13 innings. He has 13 strikeouts against them while allowing 10 hits and three walks. 

All four runs he allowed to the Phillies came in his first start. He had held the Phils to one run over six innings but departed after loading the bases with none out. The Mets' bullpen promptly allowed all three inherited runners to score.

On Sunday, Gsellman dominated, shutting out the Phils for seven innings. He allowed just five baserunners and struck out eight in the 17-0 win. 

The 23-year-old rookie has a 2.56 ERA through seven appearances in the majors. He started the season in Double A, but he will likely get a playoff start if the Mets gets to the Division Series.

5. This and that
• The Phillies have just two extra base hits in 50 plate appearances against Gsellman. They are hitting .222/.271/.267 against him. 

• Eight Phils have hits off Gsellman. Freddy Galvis is 2 for 5 with a double and Jimmy Paredes is 2 for 3 with a double and an RBI. 

• Michael Conforto hit a home run off Asher last season. No Mets hitter has more than one hit against him, in part because none of them have faced him more than three times.

• The Phillies have 601 runs on the season, the fewest in baseball by 39 runs. The Mets have the fifth worst total with 659 runs.

• Jeanmar Gomez is 0-3 with a 19.13 ERA in September. He's allowed 18 runs (17 earned) in eight innings.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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