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 push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

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This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Vince Velasquez might have had the best outing of his season Wednesday night, but the Phillies' bullpen delivered against a tough Miami Marlins lineup. 

Hector Neris nearly had a 1-2-3 inning until Adeiny Hechavarria whacked in a run off a single.

But Neris struck out Derek Dietrich swinging to end the game, 7-4, and extend the Phillies' winning streak to five games (see game story).

"We're going to continue to do the same thing we've been doing," relief pitcher Joely Rodriguez said. "We're not going to change nothing because we're doing well now."

Velasquez got the Phillies to the seventh inning, but manager Pete Mackanin pulled the right-hander once Hechavarria smacked a double off him that knocked in J.T. Realmuto to make the game 5-3.

Rodriguez replaced Velasquez to face Ichiro Suzuki. He retired Suzuki on a line drive to Maikel Franco and got another huge out on Dee Gordon to get the Phillies out of a squeeze late in the game.

"Joely has done a great job his last five outings, that's a real pleasant surprise," Mackanin said. "We knew that he had the ability to potentially do that. All he has to do with his stuff is throw strikes in the situations that he comes in. And he can be very effective as he should tonight. That's a real bonus for us."

In his past six games, including Wednesday night, Rodriguez has pitched six straight scoreless games. He also has a combined four strikeouts and threw less than nine pitches in four of those games.  

Prior to the six-game streak, Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs and 10 hits in four appearances, but he said he's been working on his mechanics.

"I have more confidence to throw the ball to home plate with my glove in the chest," Rodriguez said. "That helped me a lot to throw the ball and have a more consistent strike zone." 

Even with Rodriguez getting the Phillies out of the seventh inning, they still had to overcome the Marlins' top of the lineup in the eighth. Miami ranks seventh in the majors in runs per game with 4.78. 

Giancarlo Stanton was just starting to find his swing entering the game. The Marlins' cleanup hitter was 9 for 17 over his last four games, including four homers and seven RBIs. 

But when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the top of eighth, Stanton grounded out to Freddy Galvis to retire the side. Stanton was 0 for 3 on the night in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while Benoit threw five strikes on eight pitches in the eighth. 

"We are a group in the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "We talk to each other, support each other and do the best we can when we go to the mound and try to help the team get a win."