Tight teammates: Utley, Asche formed bond in '13

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Tight teammates: Utley, Asche formed bond in '13

It was not a coincidence that Cody Asche ended up with a locker right next to Chase Utley in the Phillies’ clubhouse when he came to the majors in July.

Utley had gotten to know Asche in spring training and thought there was something special there. So he mentioned to the clubhouse staff that he’d give up the veteran’s perk of a vacant next-door locker as long as Asche was moving in.

“I know that when you’re a young guy, it’s nice to have someone who has been around to help navigate you in the right direction,” Utley said. “Pat Burrell did it for me. He took me under his wing and I always appreciated it.”

Asche, 23, had some ups and downs during his two-month audition in the majors, but the ups were impressive enough that he will come into spring training in February as the “lead candidate” -- manager Ryne Sandberg’s words -- to be the Phillies’ starting third baseman in 2014.

Before the Phillies’ season-ending game Sunday in Atlanta, Asche praised the 34-year-old Utley for mentoring him and making him feel comfortable during his two-month stint in the big leagues.

“Chase has been huge from a preparation standpoint,” Asche said. “Just seeing what he does -- video, [batting] cage work, getting his body ready … Everything has been helpful.”

Asche knows that Utley was behind his locker assignment in the home clubhouse and was flattered by it.

“That’s what a leader does,” Asche said. “They can sense people that need a little guidance and they do that stuff. That makes him a great leader, like Jimmy (Rollins), Cole (Hamels), Chooch (Ruiz).”

Utley is a stickler for preparation. He has to be. He has to constantly be on top of his physical regimen to ward off pain flare-ups in his knees. After missing significant time in 2011 and 2012 because of cartilage issues in both knees, he was able to stay on the field in 2013. He played in 131 games, his most since 2009, and hit .284 with 18 homers and 69 RBIs. His did spend a month on the disabled list, but it was for an oblique injury, not a knee problem. The knee condition will never go away, but Utley is confident he can manage it and remain on the field. So is Phillies management, which gave him a multi-year contract extension in August.

Utley has learned that restarting baseball activities after a layoff can be hell on his knees. That’s why he never stopped doing baseball work last offseason. He worked out year-round with the baseball team at the University of San Francisco and will do so again this offseason.

“I feel like the improvements we’ve made the past year have been significant,” Utley said. “I don’t anticipate any change.”

Asche also has some offseason plans.

He started his big-league career 1 for 17 but hit .304 with five homers, 19 RBIs and an .889 OPS in his next 32 games before tailing off and finishing with just three hits in his final 33 at-bats.

He would like to get stronger this winter.

“I want to be strong and in shape when I come into camp so I can make the most of those six weeks,” he said.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has resisted anointing Asche as the team’s third baseman for 2014. Makes sense. He wants to keep Asche hungry. Besides, the Phils will have another promising third baseman in camp, slugger Maikel Franco. The 21-year-old combined to hit .320 with 31 homers and 103 RBIs at Single A and Double A in 2013.

“I frankly hope there is a great competition in spring training between Maikel and Cody,” Amaro said. “That can create a heck of a situation for us. They’re both very, very good young players.”

Asche knows Franco is coming hard. He will be ready for the competition. He is confident, but takes nothing for granted.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I can play here,” Asche said on the final day of the season. “I have confidence in myself. That’s what I took away. But you can’t stop adjusting. I made some adjustments after I got here, the pitchers made some adjustments, and now I have to make another one.

“For me, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel all winter: Make the team, be part of a winning team.

“I don’t look at it as it’s my job to lose. I look at it as it’s a spot I need to get. I put it on myself to make the decision easy for them.”

For the record, Utley believes Asche will be the Phils’ opening day third baseman in 2014.

“I don’t see why not,” Utley said. “I think he’s going to be a good one. He’s got talent. I think he’s going to keep getting better. The fact that he wants to improve and get better is an encouraging sign.”

Best of MLB: Matt Kemp walk-off HR lifts Braves over Giants

Best of MLB: Matt Kemp walk-off HR lifts Braves over Giants

ATLANTA -- Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer off Cory Gearrin in the 11th inning to lift the Atlanta Braves to a 5-3 win over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night.

The homer, the third of the game for Atlanta, was Kemp's seventh game-ending shot of his career.

Gearrin (1-2) walked Nick Markakis with one out before Kemp's homer barely cleared the right field wall..

Matt Adams hit a two-run homer and Tyler Flowers also homered off Jeff Samardzija.

Braves Sean Newcomb, who gave up one run in six innings, was denied his first win when Hunter Pence's homer off Braves closer Jim Johnson tied the game at 3-3 in the ninth. It was Johnson's fifth blown save in 18 chances (see full recap).

Diamondbacks ride 10-run 4th inning to victory
DENVER -- Taijuan Walker pitched six solid innings and slapped an RBI single during Arizona's biggest inning ever on the road -- a 10-run fourth -- and the Diamondbacks went on to beat the Colorado Rockies 16-5 on Wednesday night.

Shaking off Tuesday's tough loss in which Colorado rallied late for a one-run win, the Diamondbacks sent 14 men to the plate and pounded out nine hits, including a two-run double and RBI single by Brandon Drury in his two at-bats in the inning. Drury finished with four hits and career-high six RBIs and the Diamondbacks established season highs in run and hits (20).

David Peralta and Paul Goldschmidt also connected for two hits in the inning and combined for three RBIs, helping the Diamondbacks snap the Rockies' winning streak at six games and setting up Thursday's match between the NL West rivals as the decisive game in the series (see full recap).

Royals rally past Red Sox on Perez grand slam
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Salvador Perez hit his first career grand slam, connecting in the eighth inning to rally the Kansas City Royals over the Boston Red Sox 6-4 Wednesday.

The Royals have won nine of 11 and moved within a game of .500.

Perez homered over the Kansas City bullpen in left field on the ninth pitch from Robby Scott (0-1). With Boston leading 4-2, reliever Matt Barnes started the inning by walking Jorge Bonifacio and Lorenzo Cain on 12 pitches.

Scott was summoned to face Eric Hosmer, but walked him on four pitches to load the bases for Perez. The All-Star catcher fouled off three full-count deliveries before hitting his 15th home run of the season.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Perez was the first Kansas City player to hit a grand slam in the eighth inning or later with the Royals trailing since Frank White in 1986.

Jorge Soria (3-2) worked a spotless eighth. Kelvin Herrera pitched the ninth for his 17th save in 19 chances (see full recap).

Phillies on pace for 111 losses after bizarre late-game bullpen meltdown

Phillies on pace for 111 losses after bizarre late-game bullpen meltdown

BOX SCORE

In the big picture — and that's what has really mattered right from the beginning of this season — something quite positive happened for the Phillies on Wednesday night: A young, promising pitcher took a nice step forward and for the second straight start offered hope that he might just be a reliable piece of the rotation when this rebuilding club is ready to be relevant again.

But in the narrow view, it was easy to look right past Nick Pivetta's six innings of three-run, 10-strikeout ball. That's how bad the losing has been. Every night offers a gaper delay on the highway to 100 losses.

Did we say 100?

How about 111? That's the Phillies' current pace after an ugly 7-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals (see Instant Replay) — and 111 losses would match a franchise high set in 1941 when Doc Prothro's club went 43-111.

It's bad, folks.

But you already knew that.

This one was especially unsightly for how the Phillies lost it. They blew a five-run lead under the weight of a barrage of home runs — two against the bullpen in the eighth and ninth innings — had the potential winning run cut down at the plate by 20 feet in the bottom of the ninth then lost it in the 10th after a troubling meltdown by reliever Edubray Ramos.

You almost had to see it to believe it. And if you didn't see it, don't bother looking for a replay. It will only hurt your eyes.

"We let that five-run lead get away from us," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Real disappointing night. Pivetta did a really good job for us, gave us six good innings. And we had 16 hits; you have to win a game when you get 16 hits. We couldn't push any more runs across until that 10th inning. Very disappointing."

Pivetta — 19 strikeouts in his last two starts — took a 5-0 lead to the mound in the fifth and was tagged for a home run on a 3-2 fastball in that inning. No problem. He issued a two-out walk in the sixth then served up a first-pitch, two-run homer to Jedd Gyorko. Little problem, but not fatal.

Things started to turn bad in the eighth when reliever Joaquin Benoit served up a first-pitch homer to Jose Martinez to make it a one-run game and they got worse when Hector Neris blew his second save in three games when he gave up a game-tying homer to Tommy Pham (his second of the game) on a 1-1 fastball in the ninth.

In the 10th, Ramos gave up a leadoff double to Martinez. The reliever then balked Martinez to third and gifted him home plate on an errant pickoff throw to first base. (It sailed way over Tommy Joseph's head.) The Cards ended up scoring two runs in the frame. The second one came in handy when the Phils pushed across one in the bottom of the inning.

Ramos looks like a pitcher who needs to go to the minors to clear his head. In his last three outings, he has faced eight batters and allowed three hits, three walks and seven runs. He has also committed a costly balk and a costly error, signs that's he becoming a little overwhelmed.

"I don't know what to tell you," Mackanin said. "It looks like he's mixed up or something. He's not the same guy."

Ramos declined to speak with reporters after the game.

But Odubel Herrera and Pat Neshek did agree to chat.

Neshek, the Phillies' best reliever, was conspicuously absent from a close game. He threw 28 pitches Sunday, had a day off Monday and threw 11 on Tuesday. He was not available. What was curious was that Mackanin said Neshek had told him he was sore. Neshek said he never said such a thing, that he showed up to the ballpark and was told he was getting a day off, which he actually thought was a good idea. But sore? Not so, he said.

As for Herrera, he drew attention for running through third base coach Juan Samuel's stop sign in the bottom of the ninth inning and getting nailed at the plate for the final out. Samuel said it was the first time a player had ever run through one of his stop signs. In this case, Herrera almost ran him over.

"It's just bad timing for it," Samuel said.

There was some question as to whether Samuel's stop sign went up too late, but Herrera dismissed that. He said he was simply running with his head down.

"I was playing aggressive," he said. "I wanted to win the game. So when I was rounding third, I put my head down. I kept going to home plate. I saw [the stop sign]. But I saw it late. I put my head down. That's my mistake."

Making a mistake didn't make Herrera unique Wednesday night.

"The mistakes we're making are giving the other team too many pitches to hit," Mackanin said. "Those are our mistakes. Especially late in the game."