Tony Gwynn Jr. gets ovation as Phillies snap skid

ap-phillies-tony-gwynnjr.jpg

Tony Gwynn Jr. gets ovation as Phillies snap skid

BOX SCORE

On a night when the Phillies snapped a three-game losing streak, their rookie pitcher won his third straight start and Cody Asche and Marlon Byrd had big hits, it was a pinch-hit groundout by a .155 hitter that made this such a special night.

Tony Gwynn Jr. returned to the Phillies Tuesday, eight days after his father, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, died of cancer.

Gwynn Jr. spent the last week on the bereavement list, but he was called on to pinch-hit in the eighth inning of the Phillies’ 7-4 win over the Marlins (see Instant Replay), and when the fans at Citizens Bank Park saw No. 19 striding slowly toward the plate, a loud, prolonged ovation began rising from the stands.

Realizing what was happening, Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia walked to the pitcher’s mound to give Gwynn Jr. some time to take in the moment.

The ovation just got louder and louder. It was an unforgettable moment during what so far has been a middling season.

“Needless to say, it was pretty awesome,” Gwynn Jr. said. “Made the at-bat a little more difficult, had to fight the emotion and the tears and stuff like that.

“But that’s why guys who play here like to play here. When things are going well or regardless of whether they’re going bad or good, I think the fans stay behind us. Much appreciated by the Gwynn family.”

Gwynn Jr.’s dad hit .338 with 3,141 hits in a 20-year career, all with the Padres. He retired after the 2001 season.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility, receiving 532 of 545 ballots.

Gwynn Jr. is a .239 career hitter in eight seasons with the Brewers, Padres, Dodgers and Phillies. But none of that mattered Tuesday night.

Gwynn Jr.’s first at-bat since June 13 was the hardest of his life.

“It was really hard,” he said. “Really hard. I was fortunate enough to get two balls to regroup a little bit, but I’ve never been through anything like that before.

“Under these circumstances, it was even tougher, but like I said it was much appreciated.”

Saltalamacchia is an eight-year veteran, and he knew immediately what to do when Gwynn Jr. was announced.

Give him as much time as he needed. Saltalamacchia said after the game that’s why he went out to the mound.

“Yes, I did,” he said. “I don’t know what it must be like to lose a father, especially a guy who brought so much to this game.”

Phils manager Ryne Sandberg was a contemporary of Gwynn’s, and the two were teammates on nine National League All-Star teams.

He said he spoke to Gwynn Jr. before the game to make sure he was ready to play, but he was clearly moved by the emotion everybody felt in the bottom of the eighth.

“That was a special moment,” Sandberg said. “I thought it was outstanding by the fans, and Saltalamacchia went out there to the mound, that was classy.”

Gwynn Jr. broke down crying at his locker talking to writers after the game. He said he couldn’t even describe what all the support has meant to him -- from the fans at Citizens Bank Park and back home in San Diego.

“I don’t even know if I could come up with a word to describe it,” he said. “Obviously, at home, in San Diego. My teammates … I don’t think there was a guy I didn’t get a text from.”

At this point, he put his head down and wept, then finished by adding: “Needless to say, it’s been nice.”

Then there was the game.

David Buchanan pitched in and out of trouble all night, allowing 10 baserunners in five innings, but he gave up just two runs and earned his third straight win. He’s only the seventh Phillie rookie to go at least five innings in each of his first seven starts.

“One of those nights where the ball just wasn’t going where I wanted it to,” he said. “I probably fell behind 95 percent of the guys tonight. But you continue to battle.

“My job is try to give the team a chance to win and it wasn’t pretty, but I tried to do the best I could tonight. Obviously didn’t throw the ball where I wanted to or go as deep as I wanted to go, but it’s just one of those days.”

Byrd’s two-run homer in the first and Asche’s two-run double in the sixth were the big hits for the Phils.

Asche is 7 for 18 (.389) with three doubles and five RBIs in five games since returning from a month-long layoff with a hamstring injury.

“Just coming up in spots with teammates on base,” he said. “I think those guys are really doing it. It’s easy to hit when you’ve got guys on base, more times than not.”

Sandberg gave Asche a little more credit than Asche gave himself.

“He’s really on the ball,” he said. “He’s got a real good stroke in the zone and stinging the ball consistently. He’s an added bat, and it’s good to have. Since he came back, he’s using the whole field and showing some good pop.”

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph out, Rhys Hoskins back to 1B in opener vs. Nationals

social_phillies_tonights_lineup_v2.jpg
CSN

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph out, Rhys Hoskins back to 1B in opener vs. Nationals

The Phillies need just one more win to avoid losing 100 games this season. They'll hope to get it Monday night when they open their series against the Nationals.

Pete Mackanin has made several adjustments to the lineup that beat Atlanta on Sunday, 2-0, behind a strong start from Nick Pivetta (see observations).

Tommy Joseph is out, which means that Rhys Hoskins returns to first base. Hoskins is going through a rough stretch over the last few days, as he has only two hits in his last 17 at-bats.

Despite going 2 for 3 Sunday, Jorge Alfaro is replaced by Andrew Knapp, who plays for the first time since last Wednesday. Mackanin seems to be trying to give all three of his catchers chances to play over the final weeks of the season.

Aaron Altherr shifts down from second to fifth in the lineup. Altherr is hitting .289 vs. righties this season, compared to .236 against lefties. The Phillies face a righty tonight in Washington's A.J. Cole. In two appearances against the Phillies this year, Cole has allowed only one run in eight innings.

Aaron Nola kicks off the Phillies' final homestand on the mound. He has been stellar this year at Citizens Bank Park, where he is 9-4 with a 2.98 ERA. Nola has started against the Nationals three times in 2017, sporting a 1-0 record and 3.31 ERA in those outings. 

The Phillies' lineup can be found below: 

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Maikel Franco, 3B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Aaron Nola, SP

And the Nationals' lineup:

Nationals
1. Trea Turner, SS
2. Wilmer Difo, 3B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
4. Adam Lind, LF
5. Jayson Werth, RF
6. Michael Taylor, CF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Adrian Sanchez, 2B
9. A.J. Cole, P

After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

ap-adam-morgan-phillies.jpg
AP Images

After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

His team had lost the previous two nights to the Atlanta Braves. Now, it was trying to hold a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning and salvage at least one game in the series.

So Pete Mackanin went to arguably his most dependable reliever.

Back in the final days of spring training, Adam Morgan was nearly cut from the Phillies. The team needed 40-man roster space and he was on the short list of considerations for the waiver wire. Morgan survived, squeaked onto the opening day roster as a mop-up man, then, two weeks into the season, was called into the manager's office and sent to Triple A Lehigh Valley for the fifth time in two seasons.

That meeting in Mackanin's office shook Morgan. He said little. He walked out, sat in front of the locker he'd soon have to vacate and began a three-day reflection period in which he seriously considered retiring from the game at age 27 and moving on to pursue his second career choice of being a firefighter in the Atlanta area, where he was raised.

Morgan was back in Atlanta on Sunday, a different kind of fireman.

He was the guy that Mackanin called upon to hold off the Braves in the eighth inning and get the ball to Hector Neris. Neris bobbed and weaved his way to recording his 18th consecutive save since June 28. Before that, Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning to lower his ERA to 0.75 since August 2. In that span, he has pitched 24 innings in 18 games. He has given up just 14 hits and two runs while walking four and striking out 28.

Not too shabby.

"Morgan continued to pitch well, did a great job," Mackanin said after the 2-0 win. "And Neris is Neris. He makes you nervous but gets the job done."

Several months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Mackanin calling on Morgan is such a tight situation. It also would have been difficult to imagine Morgan popping fastballs at 96.3 miles per hour, as he did Sunday, and setting up hitters with a tight, late-breaking slider. The combination has enhanced his changeup.

Morgan, a lefty, was a top starting pitching prospect with the Phillies, often compared to a young Cliff Lee, until a shoulder injury set him back in 2013 and 2014. He made it back from surgery in 2015, but his fastball never returned to form. He was moved to the bullpen last year and tried to reinvent himself as a finesse pitcher. The results were spotty. When he was sent to the minors after just two appearances back in April of this season, he was at an emotional crossroads. He told team officials that he was going to need all three days as allowed by baseball's labor agreement to report to Triple A.

"And maybe more," he said.

Morgan and his wife, Rachel, have spent the season living in hotels between Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. On April 11, the night he was sent to the minors, he returned to his Philadelphia hotel and continued the reflection that started in front of his locker.

"I thought long and hard about what I was going to do, if I wanted to do the whole shuttle back and forth to Lehigh, or if I wanted to even play anymore," he said. "I'm such a simple guy that it's the little things that make me happy. Being with my family makes me happy, cutting the grass makes me happy. I'd think to myself, 'Why am I showing up to the field and I'm not happy?"

Morgan thought about returning to school and finishing the criminal justice degree he'd begun at the University of Alabama. And he thought about pursuing a lifelong calling.

"I'd always wanted to be a firefighter," he said. "They're bad dudes. They're awesome. I've always wanted to do it. I've always liked the brotherhood those guys have. It's a little like baseball, the camaraderie, the clubhouse. I thought maybe it was time."

Morgan is a Southern gentleman, an earnest, good-hearted man of faith. As he continued to contemplate his future, he prayed, read the Bible and talked with his wife, his buddies and his mom and dad back home in suburban Atlanta.

He decided to report to Lehigh Valley.

"My dad always taught me once you start something, finish it, don't quit," Morgan said. "So I decided I was going to finish the year regardless then re-evaluate. It was not right to quit in the middle of the year."

Morgan made it back to the majors in May and was soon sent back to Triple A. He could handle it. He was at peace. When the Phillies needed pitching in early June, he returned to the majors. He's been there ever since. And with each successful appearance, he's earned the trust of his manager. The guy who was almost cut in spring training is now a go-to guy for Mackanin.

"I think what we're seeing is the real deal," Mackanin said. "It's there. We’ve been counting on him to do the job and he's done it."

In the seasons immediately after surgery, Morgan's fastball hovered around 90 mph. He has hit 97 often over the last couple of months. Morgan believes the jump in velocity is a result of his becoming more accustomed to a reliever's routine. It allows him to do more long-tossing during workouts and that has improved his arm strength. He has also become more confident. That has resulted in him letting the ball go with more conviction instead of choking it as a pitcher afraid of making a mistake would. Hitters must be ready for that extra velocity or get beaten by it, so it has made the rest of Morgan's pitches better.

An improved slider has also played a huge role in Morgan's turnaround. He knew he needed to sharpen the pitch. He and pitching coach Bob McClure talked about a number of different grips and Morgan began to experiment. Finally, as he played catch in the outfield one day with fellow pitcher Luis Garcia, another reliever who has shown signs of finally putting it together, Morgan found a grip that worked.

"Louie was like, 'Wow,' " Morgan said.

Morgan continued to work on the new slider. It's tighter and breaks later than his old one. It has become a weapon.

"His fastball is better and he's throwing an invisible slider," Mackanin said.

There has been an intangible quality to Morgan's improvement, as well. Some of it is as simple as what McClure says: It often takes a pitcher two or three years before he truly believes he can succeed in the majors, two or three years to relax and let his natural abilities shine. It's part of the mental game of baseball and Morgan has clearly made strides there.

"Things started to turn when I started to enjoy the game," he said. "I stopped putting pressure on myself because I knew this could be my last year. I was like, 'If this is it, I'm going to enjoy it.' Even in Triple A. We had a good group of guys. I was going to cheer for them and let the chips fall where they may.

"I stopped putting my worth on my stat sheet. That's where I lost sight of how much I enjoyed the game. As a reliever, one bad outing can mess up your stats so I stopped looking at it.

"I focused on my strengths instead of the hitter's weakness. I think I was tired of everybody telling me what my strengths were, like telling me how to pitch to be successful. People were trying to help me, but I think I just got exhausted with being a people pleaser and not taking care of myself and doing what I see as the right thing. I never lost confidence in my fastball even after surgery when it was 88 or 90. I feel like I'm pitching to my strengths. I don’t have to throw a curveball to this guy because he's a crappy curveball hitter. I can get him out different ways."

Morgan has gone from a waiver consideration to "for me, a definite," as far as being in the Phillies' bullpen plans for next season, Mackanin said.

But Morgan is taking nothing for granted.

"I don't think this is a fluke," he said. "But I know I have to keep showing it. You have to prove it every day up here. I don't think you can ever get comfortable in the big leagues. You always have to have that edge.

"Even though the season is coming to a close, I don’t want it to end. I have to keep doing my routine, my shoulder work, my long-toss. I'm still working, trying to get better."

Funny how things work out. In April, Adam Morgan was thinking about the end. Along the way, he found a new beginning.

"Wow," he said, exhaling. "It's just emotional even thinking about quitting."