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.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."