Unsung relievers help Phillies' offense hold up

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Unsung relievers help Phillies' offense hold up

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It’s been that kind of a season for the Phillies.

Even when they get some offense and put together a few big innings, the Phillies have a way of making things interesting. Though the Phillies held on to beat the Chicago Cubs, 9-8, on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park to end a five-game losing streak, mistakes and miscues seemed to dwarf matters (see Instant Replay).

Working in a non-save situation with a four-run lead in the ninth inning, embattled closer Jonathan Papelbon allowed three runs on three hits, a walk and an error.

And of course the closer heard some loud boos from what remained of the crowd at every shaky turn during the ninth inning. Even when it wasn’t Papelbon’s fault, too. For instance, with two outs in the ninth Papelbon appeared to get Starlin Castro to fly out to left field for the final out of the game. But just when the Phillies (51-61) were getting ready to exchange handshakes for the win, Domonic Brown dropped the ball.

A four-pitch walk to Wellington Castillo put the go-ahead run on base before Papelbon got the last out on another fly ball to Brown in left. This time he squeezed it.

“I don’t know, but that’s not acceptable at all,” said Brown, who went 1 for 4 with two RBIs in his first game in 11 days. “We got the win, but I can’t drop the ball in that situation like that. I’m supposed to catch that every time, not nine out of 10.”

Afterwards, Brown was beating himself up for the gaffe to the point in which it seemed he needed to be reminded that the Phillies actually won the game. Better yet, the Phillies did it with some offense that reappeared with Brown’s presence in the cleanup spot in Charlie Manuel’s batting order.

With Brown in the middle of the lineup, Michael Young had a pair of doubles in the leadoff spot, Chase Utley had three hits with two RBIs and a triple in the No. 2 hole and new rightfielder Darin Ruf homered and doubled behind Brown in the lineup (see story). Even rookie Cody Asche had a pair of hits and Carlos Ruiz slugged a solo homer in the eighth for that extra insurance run that ended up coming in handy.

“I like the way we swung the bats,” Manuel said after the Phillies got just their third win in the last 16 games. “That's good for our young players. Asche and Ruf hit the ball good. Utley [and] Michael Young got big hits for us. We did some things right. At the end, of course, we were hanging on for dear life.”

Obviously, the hitters deserve most of the credit for posting as many runs in one game as the Phillies got in the last three combined. Lately, however, the Phillies’ youthful bullpen is slowly maturing before our eyes.

With veteran lefty Antonio Bastardo suspended for the remainder of the season for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, the Phillies’ young relievers are going to have to grow up quick.

Forget about Papelbon for a moment. In Tuesday night’s win it was lefty Jake Diekman tossing 1 1/3 scoreless innings to hold the Phillies’ two-run lead through the middle innings in relief of starter Kyle Kendrick (10-8), who battled through six. In the eighth, righty Justin De Fratus nursed a three-run lead by retiring the last two hitters after giving up an infield single and a broken-bat bloop single.

It was after De Fratus turned Castillo’s bat to kindling that he drew on the experience gained on the west-coast trip through San Diego and Los Angeles. It was during a stretch of three games in June against the Padres and Dodgers in which De Fratus was roughed up for four runs on five hits and five walks. Though the 25-year-old right-hander beat himself up over the performances much the way Brown did after his ninth-inning error on Tuesday, he eventually realized that the growing pains are a good thing.

Even though he didn’t know it at the time.

“It all goes back to that west-coast trip and learning how to fail,” De Fratus said. “Being experienced and knowing why that happened and growing from it, it’s a comfortable feeling knowing that I’ve been there and I have failed. Other people might take it and cower away from it. But for me it was like, I didn’t die from that experience. I’m still alive. At the end of the day, you just have to go out and compete and things will turn around, and since then that’s all I tried to do.”

Because of some unforeseen circumstances, Diekman and De Fratus may see more action in the guts of the game. Manuel kind of likes the idea of using his young players in those key spots because they can sneak up on teams.

They seemed to sneak up on the Braves over the weekend, allowing just four hits and a run in 16 1/3 innings. In the 10 games going into Tuesday’s game, the Phils’ relievers allowed just seven earned runs in 36 2/3 innings for a 1.72 ERA.

“Diekman handled the left-handed hitters. De Fratus' fastball was up tonight,” Manuel said. “That's a good sign.”

De Fratus says there isn’t much pressure on the relievers to take over for Bastardo because no one expected them to be in this position.

“There was no talk of who is going to take [Bastardo’s] spot,” De Fratus said. “I imagine it’s going to be eighth inning by committee. There’s no difference and I’m ready to pitch every night. To me, the sixth inning is just as important as the eighth. You have to get it to the next inning -- get it to the seventh and the eighth to get it to Papelbon. There is no real attitude change or mental preparation change. We just have to get outs.”

Ultimately, that’s what happened for Papelbon in the ninth, too. Though it wasn’t pretty or smooth, he got three outs and the Phillies held on. With the way things have been going this season, that’s no small feat.

The series continues on Wednesday night when Cole Hamels (4-13, 3.87) faces Travis Wood (7-8, 3.05). A win could give the Phillies their first back-to-back wins since July 19.

MLB Notes: Austin Jackson makes Indians' opening day roster

MLB Notes: Austin Jackson makes Indians' opening day roster

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Outfielder Austin Jackson took an opportunity with the Cleveland Indians and ran with it.

Jackson was informed on Sunday that he has made Cleveland's opening-day roster, giving the AL champions some outfield depth in case Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley aren't ready for the start of the season.

The 30-year-old Jackson signed a minor league deal with the Indians in January. He missed the early part of training camp as he recovered from left knee surgery, but Jackson has made up for lost time by batting .375 with one homer and five RBIs in Cactus League games.

Jackson played in only 54 games last year with the Chicago White Sox before undergoing knee surgery to repair torn meniscus. He's played in the postseason with Detroit and the Cubs.

Jackson had an out clause in his contract that had to be exercised by Sunday (see full story).

Rockies: Mark Reynolds' contract selected from Triple A
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies have selected the contract of first baseman Mark Reynolds from Triple-A Albuquerque.

Reynolds figures to be the starter at first in the absence of Ian Desmond, who is out with a broken left hand.

The 33-year-old Reynolds hit a career-best .282 last season with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs. He was limited to 32 at-bats after Aug. 11. He broke a bone in his left hand while swinging a bat, had surgery on Aug. 15, was activated Aug. 31 and broke his left wrist when he was hit by a pitch on Sept. 18.

He re-signed with Colorado in February on a minor-league deal.

Also Sunday, Colorado placed right-hander Chad Bettis on the 60-day disabled list as he deals with testicular cancer. There is no timetable for Bettis' return.

Tigers: Lowe released; Jimenez to minor-league camp
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Detroit Tigers have released right-handed reliever Mark Lowe, one of several cuts before Sunday's spring training game against Toronto.

Detroit also optioned catcher John Hicks to Triple-A Toledo, and the Tigers reassigned right-handers Joe Jimenez, Ruben Alaniz, Logan Kensing, Arcenio Leon and Edward Mujica, infielder Dominic Ficociello and outfielders Anthony Gose and Juan Perez to minor league camp.

The Tigers signed Lowe to an $11 million, two-year contract before last season, but he was ineffective in 2016, going 1-3 with a 7.11 ERA in 54 appearances. He had a 5.19 ERA in nine appearances this spring.

In 2015, Lowe went 1-3 with a 1.96 ERA in 57 games with Seattle and Toronto.

Phillies 6, Pirates 3: Andrew Knapp's big day comes at the right time

Phillies 6, Pirates 3: Andrew Knapp's big day comes at the right time

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ever since Andrew Knapp earned his way onto the Phillies' 40-man roster back in November, it seemed to be a fait accompli that he would end up as the team's backup catcher on opening day.

But that's not to say he didn't have to shine just a little bit in spring training to validate his standing.

Knapp got off to a slow start in Grapefruit League play -- one hit in his first 22 at-bats -- but he began the final week of camp with his best game on Sunday. He went 2 for 4 with a two-run home run and threw out two runners on the bases.

"It's been nice to get some games back-to-back," Knapp said. "I struggled a little bit early just taking a lot of time off in between at-bats and behind the plate. But this past week, I've been able to get in there a lot and start to get in the flow of the game a little bit. I think I was trying to do too much early on."

The increased playing time is likely a sign that Knapp will end up on the 25-man roster. The Phils have two non-roster veteran catchers -- Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan -- in camp. Both can opt out of their minor-league contracts in the coming days if they aren't going to make the club.

Phillies officials are looking to make as few subtractions from the 40-man roster as they can in constructing their bench and bullpen (see story). That's why things are looking good for Knapp.

But he's taking nothing for granted. Though Phillies officials were scheduled to meet Sunday evening "to try to get as close to the finalization as we can," in manager Pete Mackanin's words, opening day rosters don't have to be officially submitted until next Sunday, a day before the season opener.

"I'm just trying to keep my head down and not think about it that much," Knapp said. "The playing helps a lot. When you're just sitting on the bench, you're thinking about a million things. But when you're in the game, you get away from that a little bit. Just go out there, play, and enjoy the game. It's helped a lot."

The rest of the bench
Andres Blanco and Aaron Altherr are both set on the bench. Knapp looks good. That leaves two open spots, presuming the Phillies go with a five-man bench.

Chris Coghlan and Daniel Nava, both non-roster veterans, have played extensively in recent days. That suggests they could be the lead candidates. If that's the case, Brock Stassi, who has not played the last two days, could be on the outside. Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp and he has played well. He's also on the 40-man roster and that would play in his favor. However, at 22, he might be better served to get regular playing time in Triple A.

Neither Coghlan nor Nava is on the 40-man roster so the Phils would have to clear spots to carry them.

Coghlan made an excellent running catch against the wall in left field Sunday.

The game
The Phillies had 15 hits and six of them were for extra bases, including homers by Knapp and Maikel Franco, in their 6-3 win over the Pirates.

Clay Buchholz, who had not pitched in 10 days after traveling home for the birth of his son, was rusty. He gave up five hits and three runs in 3 1/3 innings. He walked four and struck out four.

"Four walks is definitely subpar, but, you know, it's still spring training," Buchholz said.

The right-hander has allowed 11 runs over his last 14 2/3 innings.

"You can't honestly say he's had a good spring, but he was up close to 90 pitches today so pitch-count-wise he's doing fine," Mackanin said. "He hadn't pitched in 10 days so I can understand his lack of command. Once he's into a rhythm I think he'll be fine."

Venditte shines
Ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings.

"It's fun to watch Venditte pitch," Mackanin said. "If I'm up in the stands and I see him throw four pitches from the right side and I reach over to get my Coke or beer and I look back up and he's throwing from the left side I will start wondering how many beers I had. He's fun to watch."

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays in Dunedin on Monday night. Vince Velasquez will start against Toronto's Aaron Sanchez.

The Phils could have several roster moves during the day as the 25-man roster continues to come into focus.