Unsung relievers help Phillies' offense hold up

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Unsung relievers help Phillies' offense hold up

BOX SCORE

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.

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.