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.

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning their season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeout Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year (see story)”. 

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five (reliable) guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola’s likely final appearance of 2017 was another good one, but also his 11th loss. 

The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits and struck out nine in six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the NL East champion Washington Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. 

With the Phillies using a six-man rotation and an off day Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin said Nola was “most likely” making his last start. He gave up a two-run home run on a 3-1 fastball to Michael A. Taylor in the second inning before getting into a groove with his curveball. 

Nola (12-11) retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced and left with a 3.54 ERA as the Phillies kicked off a season-ending six-game homestand with their fourth loss in five games. 

Odubel Herrera hit an 0-2 mistake fastball for a solo shot to right in the fourth for the Phillies’ lone run. They struggled against A.J. Cole (3-5), who allowed six hits over 5 2/3 innings and collected his first major-league hit.

• It marked the 18th time in 27 starts that Nola allowed two earned runs or fewer. He gave up only eight earned runs in four starts against Washington. 

• The Phillies have scored seven runs in the past four games. 

• Rhys Hoskins hit a nubber toward first in the fourth inning that Ryan Zimmerman fielded facing the mound and blindly flipped backward to Cole covering first for the out. Hoskins flied deep to center to end the fifth and finished 0 for 4. He’s 2 for 21 in the past four games and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14. 

• Nick Williams went 1 for 4 with a single and three strikeouts. 

• Maikel Franco popped out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to lead off the ninth against Sean Doolittle (24th save). 

• Hoskins made two fine plays at first base. He made a nice scoop of Freddy Galvis’ low throw in the first and made a leaping grab of Cesar Hernandez’s high and wide throw and tagged Matt Weiters going by for the out in the fourth. 

• Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s return from a left knee injury was delayed by illness. Manager Dusty Baker said Harper, out since Aug. 12, woke up feeling sick. He was at the park early to get treatment and could play Tuesday. “He probably doesn’t like to hit here,” Mackanin joked. Harper’s 12 home runs at Citizens Bank Park are the most he’s hit in any road stadium. 

• Nola twice came up with runners at first and second and two outs. He grounded to first in the second and fanned in the fourth. 

• Mackanin planned to give his team a pep talk. “If they think they’re tired and ready to go home — it’s been a long season — I’m going to remind them, ‘If you want to go to the World Series, you’re going to play another entire month,’” he said. 

• With Nola likely finished for the season, it’s lining up for Henderson Alvarez to start Saturday and Nick Pivetta to go in the season finale Sunday. 

• All players from both teams on the field before the game stood for the national anthem. Baker, who is black, said he opposes kneeling, but understands the frustrations of those athletes who do it. “We’ve been talking about the same problems I had when I was 18 or 19 years old, so have we made progress or have we regressed?” Baker said. “It’s up to us to try to figure out how to come up with a solution.” 

• The Phillies dropped to 33 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They must win one of their final five games to avoid 100 losses. The Nationals must finish 5-1 to win 100 games. 

• Right-hander Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will make his fourth start against the Nationals this season when he faces lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night.