In second rehab game, Utley feels '100 percent'

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In second rehab game, Utley feels '100 percent'

READING, Pa. — Headed into Thursday night’s contest at First Energy Stadium, Chase Utley had appeared in just four previous games for the Reading Fightin’ Phillies.

For a homegrown player like Utley, who spent parts of three seasons at Triple A, this fact is a little quirk in his development, though it doesn’t seem to have hindered Utley’s career in baseball. Even that 2002 season spent playing third base in Triple A instead of playing second base at Double A didn’t slow him down.

“It went by pretty fast at the time. I knew no different,” Utley said of those halcyon days. “I enjoyed my time at Scranton and I missed out in playing [in Reading] and it seems like they have a great fan base. It’s a lot of fun playing here, but that was the road they wanted me to take.”

Meanwhile, Utley’s latest incarnation with Reading doesn’t appear as if it is going to last too long, either. Though he went 0 for 5 on Thursday night following an 0-for-4 for Reading on Wednesday in his first rehab games since suffering a strained oblique muscle on May 21, Utley likely will rejoin the Phillies for this weekend’s series against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“I think it’s a possibility,” Utley said when asked if he will be joining the Phillies for Friday’s series opener against the Mets. “I have to talk with [general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel] to see what we all want to do.”

Though Utley didn’t get any hits in his rehab outings for Reading, that’s kind of beside the point. With an oblique injury, Utley simply wanted to give it a vigorous test to see how he stood up to the wear and tear of a ballgame, and he definitely got that the last two nights in Reading.

Utley played all nine innings where he grounded out twice, flied out twice and struck out with the bases loaded and two outs in the second inning on a tricky off-speed pitch from Portland Sea Dogs starter Keith Couch.

Utley also faced a lefty reliever as well as Portland’s closer in the ninth.

More important to Utley, he was tested in the field. In the fourth inning, Utley had to leap in order to snare a would-be line drive base hit. He also made the turn on a 6-4-3 double play and slapped a tag on a runner at the end of a peculiar, 7-6-4 double play/sacrifice fly.

After the game, Utley was pleased that he was able to play his normal game with nothing to worry about.

“I jumped for a ball that possibly could have given me trouble and there was no problem whatsoever,” Utley said of his leaping catch. “I got to face a lefty, which was nice. I got five at-bats and saw some pitches and it went pretty well.”

Utley didn’t come out and declare himself ready to jump back into the Phillies’ lineup, but he certainly seemed to be leaning that way.

“I think everything is good,” Utley said. “I didn’t get any hits, but the main goal was to feel comfortable out there and I felt 100 percent.”

And Utley got to spend a couple of days in Reading, Pa., too. Counting a rehab assignment in 2007, Utley is 1 for 19 with three strikeouts in five career games for Reading. Incidentally, during that rehab assignment in 2007, Utley and Reading manager Dusty Wathan were teammates.

This time around, Utley, 34, was the big-league veteran offering advice to the kids.

“I don’t feel that old, but these guys are a lot younger than I am,” Utley said. “It’s good to talk with them. They all seem to work hard, which is No. 1 in my book.”

This time Utley played alongside two of the Phillies’ top prospects in lefty starting pitcher Jesse Biddle and third baseman Maikel Franco.

Biddle, the top-rated prospect in the system, had a rough outing on Thursday. In six innings, the lefty allowed four earned runs on six hits and six walks. Though he struck out five, Biddle’s command was troublesome. Of his 104 pitches, Biddle threw 52 strikes and 52 balls.

Not the ratio a pitcher is shooting for in a start.

“He struggled a little bit with his command. His fastball command was good early on, but he seemed to lose it a little in the middle innings,” Wathan said of Biddle. “But to his credit, he stuck with it because we were a little short in the bullpen after a doubleheader the other day.

“He had to battle through it and it’s something a young pitcher has to do.”

Meanwhile, Franco went 2 for 4 in his Double A debut and even made a barehanded grab of a soft grounder hit down the line at third base.

A strong and sturdy third baseman, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Franco turned a lot of heads playing at Single A Clearwater this season. In 65 games with the Threshers, Franco had 16 homers and 52 RBIs. He also was batting .299 with a .349 on-base percentage and a .576 slugging percentage.

Franco looked like a big-time player in the field and at the plate on Thursday night.

“He’s a young guy with some bat speed and he plays a good third base,” Utley said of Franco. "I think he’s just 20 years old so he’s going to definitely improve and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Maybe in a few years Franco and Utley will be teammates again, just like they were for a short time in Reading.

Phillies-White Sox 5 things: Can Phils pound James Shields like rest of MLB?

Phillies-White Sox 5 things: Can Phils pound James Shields like rest of MLB?

Phillies (58-68) at White Sox (60-64)
8:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies' brief two-game series with the White Sox ends tonight at U.S. Cellular Field. The Phils were pounded, 9-1, on Tuesday as they lost for the fifth time in seven games. They've been outscored 50-20 in those seven games.

Let's take a look at the series finale:

1. Get 'em through six
The Phillies turn to Jerad Eickhoff, who has been the most consistent of their many young right-handers. Eickhoff is 8-12 with a 3.91 ERA, and he's pitched at least six innings in 16 of his 25 starts.

That's notable at the moment because the Phillies aren't getting much length from any of their other young starters. Jake Thompson has averaged fewer than five innings in his four starts. Vince Velasquez is averaging 5.1 innings over his last four. Adam Morgan has averaged 4.3.

Unlike the others, Eickhoff has progressed rather than regressed this season. He hit a rough patch in April and early May and the struggles taught him to use his slider more. He went from being a three-pitch pitcher to a four-pitch pitcher, and the success of his slider made his fastball, sinker and curveball more effective.

That's the kind of adjustment a young pitcher needs to make. The adjustments for the others are pretty clear: Velasquez needs to mix his pitches better and get outs earlier in counts, while Thompson needs to throw more first-pitch strikes and get his slider below waist level.

Games in AL parks are always tougher on pitchers because of the DH, but Eickhoff has thrown well in both of his interleague starts in AL stadiums this season. He allowed one earned run in six innings at Target Field in Minnesota and pitched six shutout innings at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

It should benefit him that these White Sox hitters have never seen him. Players who don't have experience against Eickhoff tend to be frozen by his big hook.

2. Benefit of fresh arms
The Phillies' bullpen has been taxed lately because of the injuries and ineffectiveness of the starting rotation. Phils relievers have pitched an average of 3.9 innings per game in August. The starters have accounted for only 57 percent of the innings pitched. Not good.

Thankfully, the Phillies have been able to turn to somewhat fresh relievers. 

Edubray Ramos has made 23 appearances in July and August and shown flashes. He's struck out 29 and walked just six in 25⅓ innings this season. 

Michael Mariot, who missed the first six weeks of the season with an ankle injury, has a 3.24 ERA and has allowed just four baserunners in 8⅓ innings.

Manager Pete Mackanin spoke last week about wanting a few more relievers when rosters expand on Sept. 1. It would allow the Phillies to give Hector Neris more rest. Neris hasn't exactly been overworked — he's made 63 appearances and is on pace for 81 — but it could only help to lessen his load as the season nears its conclusion.

Neris continues to dominate, by the way. He's pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings in a row with 14 strikeouts. In 64⅓ innings this season, he has a 2.24 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 82 strikeouts and 18 walks. His opponents have hit .195.

3. Not the same James
The Phillies face veteran right-hander James Shields, who is having by far the worst year of his career. Shields, who began the year with the Padres before being traded at the beginning of June, is 5-15 with a 5.98 ERA. 

His numbers are even worse with Chicago — 3-8 with a 7.62 ERA and 1.82 WHIP. Everyone's pounding him — lefties, righties, good teams, bad teams. Shields' opponents have hit .297 with a .902 OPS. It's caused him to shy away from contact more and his walk rate has risen from 2.3 per nine in his previous 10 seasons to 4.3 this year.

Most teams stayed away from Shields in free agency prior to 2015 because of all the wear and tear on his arm. He was about to turn 33, and he had pitched an average of 223 innings over an eight-year span heading into that offseason. (He also pitched 60 total innings in the playoffs during those years.)

Those concerns appear to have been warranted, as Shields' stuff has declined in his mid-30s. Shields' fastball averaged 92.3 mph from 2012 to 2014 and is down to 90.4 this season. 

His changeup has always been his best pitch, even in recent years. From 2012 to 2015, his opponents hit .215 in 1,044 at-bats ending in a changeup. This season they've hit .263 with 14 extra-base hits, six of which were homers.

The Phillies saw Shields in the 2008 World Series. That was his third big-league season. A few Phils have hit him well — Odubel Herrera is 4 for 6; Peter Bourjos is 5 for 10 with a double and a homer.

4. Platooning Herrera?
Herrera has sat against most left-handed starting pitchers recently. Mackanin and the Phillies are trying to get him back to hitting the way he was earlier in the season, when he was seeing a ton of pitches and utilizing the opposite field. He hit .294 with a .378 on-base percentage in the first half but has hit .252 with a .321 OBP since the All-Star break.

Interestingly, Herrera fared well last season against lefties. He hit .293 against them in 123 at-bats as a rookie. In 2016, he's hit .225 against them in 120 at-bats. But a lot of those failures have come against left-handed relievers, who by nature are stingier against same-handed hitters because that's their specialty. 

Herrera, whose bat was missing from Tuesday's lineup against tough lefty Carlos Rodon, is actually hitting .309 (25 for 81) with a .398 OBP this season vs. left-handed starters. Against lefty relievers, he's 2 for 39.

5. Cell tower power 
U.S. Cellular Field is the only active big-league stadium in which Ryan Howard has never played. He sat last night but is expected to start tonight against the right-hander Shields.

Howard, who has taken Shields deep before, has homered in 25 of the 33 parks he's played in. If he hits one out tonight, that would be 26. 

It's not out of the realm of possibility given how locked in Howard has been. Over his last 13 games, he's 16 for 43 (.375) with four doubles, five homers and 13 RBIs. He's third in the majors in slugging percentage (.814) over that span, behind only Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon.

Jake Thompson left searching for answers after latest rough start

Jake Thompson left searching for answers after latest rough start

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO — On the whole, the Phillies have made steady progress in their rebuild this season.

Cameron Rupp has improved. Maikel Franco has had a nice year. Odubel Herrera, even with his recent inconsistency, has had more ups than downs. Cesar Hernandez has been on a good roll. Freddy Galvis has 36 extra-base hits, and Tommy Joseph has opened eyes with his power. In the bullpen, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos have shown that they just might be future studs.
 
For a good chunk of the season, the young starting pitching has shown promise, as well.
 
But lately, that corner of the team has taken some hits. Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin were both ruled out for the remainder of the season last week with elbow and knee injuries, respectively, and hard-throwing Vince Velasquez has been tagged for 19 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings over his last three starts.
 
Jake Thompson’s first four major-league starts haven’t exactly inspired confidence, either. The 22-year-old right-hander was hit hard in a 9-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay). He gave up eight hits, including five for extra bases, and seven runs as his ERA swelled to 9.78. Only Mike Maddux (9.98) in 1986 had a higher ERA for the Phillies in his first four big-league starts.
 
“I’m not used to this,” Thompson said after the defeat. “I feel certain that I’m a lot better than my performance has indicated.”
 
Few pitchers come to the big leagues and dazzle right away. There is a learning curve and occasionally growing pains. But no one expected Thompson to have this much trouble out of the chute, not after what he did in his final 11 starts at Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
Thompson went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
In four starts with the big club, he has given up 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He has walked 13 and struck out 13.
 
He was advertised as a control and command pitcher. He has yet to show that in the majors.
 
“A lot of it has to do with his age and, I think, the fact he’s in the big leagues for the first time trying to make a good impression,” manager Peter Mackanin said. “He probably feels like he needs to make perfect pitches every time. All he’s got to do is keep the ball down. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He relies on command and control and he hasn’t shown that. I attribute a lot of that to his youth and inexperience.”
 
So does Rupp, the catcher.
 
“How many guys do you see come to the big leagues at 22 years old and just flat out dominate every time they go out?” Rupp said. “Not very many. He's young. It was his first time in Triple A this year and he pitched really well and now he's got a chance in the big leagues. I'm sure he feels like there's pressure. When you come up and you pitch so well all year and then you finally get your opportunity, you want to impress. It puts a lot on you. And as a kid, you've got to be able to control it and it's tough. It's hard.

“Nobody wants to see anybody fail. It's hard to go through. It's something that's going to make him better when he does finally figure it out."
 
Two of the walks Thompson gave up Tuesday night became runs. He gave up back-to-back homers to Jose Abreu and Justin Morneau in the fifth inning as the White Sox turned it into a rout.
 
“Just too many pitches up in the strike zone,” Mackanin said. “Everything he threw was thigh high, waist high. He couldn’t get the ball down. It’s as simple as that.”
 
Thompson concurred with his manager.
 
“The issue is pretty evident,” he said. “I'm not throwing strikes and when I am throwing strikes, they're not good strikes. It’s a frustrating thing because it's a relatively easy thing to do. I don't really have the answer right now to fix it.”
 
The game moves fast at the big-league level and confidence can become bruised quickly. Thompson said his confidence was unshaken. Still, Phillies officials have to be careful that this difficult baptism to the majors does not snowball and become something that adversely impacts Thompson's growth.
 
“It’s something that you’re concerned about and I’m concerned about,” Mackanin said.
 
Concerned enough that Thompson might not make his next start?
 
Mackanin said he expected Thompson to stay in the rotation, but added that he would speak with general manager Matt Klentak on the topic.
 
“I don’t want to see him keep getting beat up and keep struggling like this,” Mackanin said. “We’ll talk about it and see what Matt wants to do.”

Best of MLB: Royals shut out Marlins for 9th straight win

Best of MLB: Royals shut out Marlins for 9th straight win

MIAMI -- Yordano Ventura escaped two threats while pitching six innings, and the Kansas City Royals extended their winning streak to nine games by beating the Miami Marlins 1-0 on Tuesday night.

Ventura (9-9), who reached 101 mph on the scoreboard radar gun, allowed six hits and one walk while striking out six. Royals starters have an ERA of 1.69 during the winning streak, Kansas City's longest since June 2014.

Three relievers closed out the win and extended the bullpen's streak of 32 consecutive shutout innings since Aug. 10. Kelvin Herrera pitched a perfect ninth for his eighth save.

The Marlins had won three straight but were shut out despite totaling seven hits. They went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position (see full recap).

Nova, Pirates beat Astros to snap 4-game skid
PITTSBURGH -- Ivan Nova took a shutout into the ninth inning and finished with a six-hitter while Gregory Polanco hit two home runs to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 7-1 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night.

Nova (10-6) struck out six, walked one and threw 69 of his 98 pitches for strikes while improving to 3-0 in four starts since being acquired from the New York Yankees in an Aug. 1 trade.

It was the fourth complete game of the right-hander's seven-year career with the others coming in 2013.

His bid for his third career shutout ended when Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve led off the ninth with consecutive doubles.

After the Pirates scored four runs in the first inning, Polanco hit solo shots in the third and fifth off Joe Musgrove and Tony Sipp to extend the lead to 6-0 and raise his season total to a team-high 19 homers (see full recap).

Gausman, Jones help Orioles roll over Nationals
BALTIMORE -- Kevin Gausman scattered six hits over six shutout innings, Adam Jones went 4 for 5 and the Baltimore Orioles breezed past the Washington Nationals 8-1 on Tuesday night.

Chris Davis hit his 30th home run for the Orioles, who won two straight over Washington to conclude a 3-5 homestand.

Baltimore is 34-24 against the Nationals in a rivalry that began in 2006. The series shifts 38 miles south to Nationals Park on Wednesday for the first of two games.

Gausman (5-10) walked two, struck out two and permitted only one runner past second base. He's 5-1 at home and 0-9 on the road.

The 25-year-old Gausman outpitched Nationals rookie Reynaldo Lopez, a 22-year-old making his fifth major league start. Lopez (2-2) yielded six runs, four earned, and seven hits in 2 2/3 rocky innings (see full recap).