Urging patience, Matt Stairs believes there's still a great player lurking inside of Maikel Franco

Urging patience, Matt Stairs believes there's still a great player lurking inside of Maikel Franco

In the visiting clubhouse after Sunday's game in Washington, Matt Stairs made eye contact with a reporter and gave an implicit little nod that seemed to say, "OK. Not bad. It's a start."

During an interview earlier in the day, the first-year Phillies hitting coach had talked extensively about one of his pupils, Maikel Franco. Stairs praised Franco's talent and work ethic, and expressed the opinion that someday it would all come together for the recently turned 25-year-old third baseman, that ultimately Franco would grow from the struggles he has endured during the 2017 season and become the consistent middle-of-the-order run producer that the Phillies have long hoped he'd be.

"I still believe that inside that mind and body of his is a great player," Stairs said. "I really do."

A couple of hours later, the Phillies faced Stephen Strasburg, one of Washington's stud starting pitchers. Strasburg pitched eight shutout innings against the Phillies, running his scoreless innings streak to a franchise-record 34. He struck out 10 and gave up just two hits, both sharply hit singles by Franco.

Franco's two-hit day came after he'd belted a pair of home runs in the previous two games. The home runs followed a three-game stint on the bench to accommodate J.P. Crawford, who arrived in the majors for an audition last week. Crawford is getting time at third base because Franco, plagued by inconsistency at the plate this season, has not locked up the position long term. He's made himself an easy "sit" with his frequent cold spells.

Nonetheless, Stairs was pleased with Franco's work at the plate on Sunday and in the previous two games. Hitting coaches are tireless, underappreciated soldiers of the game, toiling for hours in batting cages and video rooms in the back corridors of ballparks long before the gates open to fans. They live and die with every at-bat their students take, quietly rejoicing in the successes and privately wincing when things don't go right.

Franco's .229 batting average and .683 OPS have caused more than a few winces in the Phillies organization this season. But this was a good weekend in Washington. Hence, Stairs' unspoken review — OK. Not bad. It's a start.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has spoken often this season about Franco's needing to make some adjustments at the plate because what he's been doing has simply not worked consistently.

Franco has tinkered with some things. He tried resting his hands on his shoulders during his setup at the plate — the Stairs-suggested strategy worked for Aaron Altherr this season and an old teammate named Jayson Werth years ago — for several games recently but that change did not last long.

Over the weekend in Washington, Franco incorporated a front-toe raise to his open stance. The hope is that it forces his momentum forward, toward the pitcher, and stops him from pulling off pitches. Franco even raised his hands slightly over the weekend.

Stairs wants to see more of that.

Over the weekend, during one of their frequent skull sessions, Stairs expressed his desire to see Franco raise his hands even more. In Franco's current setup, his hands sit around the height of the letters on his uniform top. Stairs would like to see Franco bring his hands up to around chin-high.

"I don’t want him to do it now," Stairs said. "Just think about it now. Mess around with it in BP and cage work."

Franco plans to play winter ball in his native Dominican Republic in November. Stairs would like to see him work on the adjustment then. On Sunday, Franco said he was open to the change and will work on it.

"Why not?" said Franco, one of the most upbeat guys in the Phillies clubhouse. "I'm open to everything, whatever will help me. I always want to learn more."

One of Franco's issues is that he often over-swings and pulls off the ball by opening his front hip.

How will raising his hands address that issue?

"There's too much movement from low to high and by the time he gets his hands up and goes toward the baseball, he's late," Stairs said. "When you're late, the first thing you do is cheat and you spin, everything flies open, your foot goes in the bucket and you pull off the baseball."

Stairs wants Franco to watch video of former American League MVP Miguel Tejada. Stairs and Tejada were teammates in Oakland.

"Not that I want him to hit like Tejada, but watch his path, watch his swing, watch his hands," Stairs said. "They have the same type of swing."

Stairs hopes that if Franco has results with the adjustment of his hands, success will follow and confidence — the magic ingredient in all things performance related — will come.

"I told Mikey I was in the exact same spot as you," Stairs said. "I hit .227 one year. I know what he's going through. It's frustrating. It's embarrassing."

Stairs actually believes Franco has a sound, basic understanding of the strike zone. But too often he swings at everything. And he's been an easy out in hitter's counts, batting just .187 when he's up in the count.

"When he's ahead in the count — bad hitter; he gets himself out," Stairs said. "Numbers don’t lie on that. He thinks he's going to get a cookie and he over-swings."

Stairs talks hitting the way Guy Fieri talks good eats — often, enthusiastically and to most everyone who crosses his path. Recently, he chatted with San Diego bench coach Mark McGwire about Franco.

"He loves the potential and thinks he's going to be fine once he gets his direction going toward the pitcher and improves his pitch selection," Stairs said.

"Mikey is still young and he has some of the best hands I've ever seen in baseball. He has thunder in his hands. People are going to see the numbers and say, 'You're crazy,' but ... patience."

All signs point to the front office having that patience for at least another year. Though Crawford has played some third — and it's not completely out of the question that he stays there — that's probably more a matter of finding a place to get some at-bats without completely disrupting Freddy Galvis' season. Crawford still projects mostly as the shortstop of the future with Galvis moving on either in a trade this winter or next summer or as a free agent after next season.

Franco's name was out there earlier this season as a trade candidate. The Phillies' ears are always open, but in the case of Franco, the potential returns were not good. Franco's poor season had hurt his value and rival teams were looking for a steal. The Phillies weren't and still aren't ready to give up on him.

Still to be determined, however, is whether Franco is this team's long-term third baseman. Manny Machado is only a season away from free agency and he has many fans in the Phillies hierarchy. All signs point to the Phillies' giving Franco more time to correct his flaws and reach his potential in 2018. Maybe in that time he builds trade value. Or maybe he shows himself to be a player the team can build around.

"I absolutely believe in Maikel Franco's future," general manager Matt Klentak said. "I think there's too much talent there. He has the bat speed, the strength, his defense has taken a step forward. All the components are there for Maikel to still be a really good player. I know his numbers right now aren't what a lot of people expected or hoped, but we still believe strongly in his future."

But that future hinges on Franco making improvements. And that improvement hinges on his making some adjustments at the plate. Some of the adjustments have already started. And to read Matt Stairs' mind: OK. Not bad. It's a start.

Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

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Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's time for the 2017 Cleveland Indians to be introduced to the one and only 1884 Providence Grays.

They share some unlikely history, the two teams, which played a mere 141 years apart, are the only two clubs to have ever won 27 out of 28 games.

The Indians joined the Grays on Thursday when Francisco Lindor's three-run homer led Cleveland to a 4-1 victory and three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Grays ended up winning 28 of 29, leaving the Indians one game shy of matching the record (see full recap).

Cubs rally in 9th, beat Brewers to open big series
MILWAUKEE -- Javier Baez grounded a tying single with two outs in the ninth inning, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer in the 10th and the Chicago Cubs widened their NL Central lead over Milwaukee, beating the Brewers 5-3 Thursday night.

The Cubs now are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers after winning the opener of a four-game series.

Milwaukee was in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out. But Wade Davis (4-1) struck out Domingo Santana and then, after falling behind 3-1 in the count to Orlando Arcia, came back to retire him on an easy comebacker on a full-count pitch.

The Cubs trailed 3-2 when Ian Happ led off the ninth by hitting a grounder that first baseman Neil Walker fielded wide of the bag. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress covered first and Happ was called safe in a close play, a ruling upheld on replay (see full recap).

Twins rout Tigers, lead AL wild card by 2½ games
DETROIT -- With a postseason berth tantalizingly close, the Minnesota Twins snapped out of their mini-slump in emphatic fashion.

Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each, and the Twins extended their lead for the American League's second wild card by beating the Detroit Tigers 12-1 on Thursday night. Minnesota is 2 games ahead of the Angels in the race for the AL's final postseason spot. Los Angeles lost earlier in the day to Cleveland .

The Twins had lost five of six coming into the night, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, but they routed a depleted Detroit team that is 4-17 in September after trading Justin Verlander and Justin Upton.

"As a whole in this season, it's been pretty impressive," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "Staying away from the long losing streaks, coming back from some tough losses and some tough stretches and getting back to playing winning baseball, for the most part,” (see full recap).

Fowler delivers again as Cardinals beat Reds
CINCINNATI -- The St. Louis Cardinals rinsed the bad taste of being swept by the Chicago Cubs the best way they could -- sweeping the Cincinnati Reds.

Dexter Fowler delivered again, hitting two doubles and a single as St. Louis overcame Scott Schebler's two home runs to beat the Reds 8-5 Thursday night.

The Cardinals began the day 2 games behind Colorado for the second NL wild-card spot and five games behind the Central-leading Cubs.

Fowler drove in two runs. He went 7 for 13 with two home runs and six RBIs in the three-game series (see full recap).

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

BOX SCORE

In the end, things reverted to form: The Dodgers won and the Phillies lost.

The Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, the Phillies to who-knows-where.

Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon to beat the Phils, 5-4, and salvage the finale of a four-game series (see observations).

The Dodgers, the majors’ best team at 97-56, lowered their magic number to one for clinching a fifth straight NL West championship. The Phils, baseball’s second-worst team at 61-92, were left with a lovely parting gift: hope.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” J.P. Crawford, the rookie shortstop-turned-third baseman, said of the series as a whole. “It showed us, or showed me, we can compete with the best teams in the league. Just can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

Crawford, the 16th overall pick in 2013, drew three walks in four plate appearances and fielded eight chances flawlessly, at least four of which could be described as moderately difficult.

In addition, Mark Leiter Jr. pitched six strong innings, Rhys Hoskins did another Rhys Hoskins thing — i.e., hit a two-run double in the fifth — and Nick Williams launched a two-run homer.

So it was that the Phillies finished the homestand with a 7-3 record. They have won eight of their last 12, and are 32-34 since the All-Star break, after going 29-58 beforehand.

There are those who question how much it means for an also-ran to excel in September, when the pressure is off. It would appear that Phillies manager Pete Mackanin is not among those people. He mentioned in particular how valuable it is for his young relievers to face teams in the thick of the race.

“To get this kind of experience is worth a lot,” he said. “It’s a big part of this year.”

One of those relievers, Ricardo Pinto, faltered Thursday, allowing those two seventh-inning runs to take the loss. But Leiter, who had pitched to a 9.39 ERA in three previous September starts, allowed just one earned run on five hits over his six innings of work. He struck out three and walked one.

So it’s one for his résumé going forward. And he said a strong finish to the season — the Phils have nine games left — is “important for everybody.”

“I don't know if it's more important for us than other teams,” he said, “but you want to finish strong and start strong. Those are the goals. That's baseball. You're going to have some ups and downs, and to take a series is a good thing.”

Crawford, called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 5, hit .200 without a walk in his first six major-league games. In his last nine, he is slashing .296/.474/.481, with 10 walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.

“Just a matter of getting my feet settled down,” he said, “and just being comfortable in the box.”

“It’s good to see,” Mackanin said. “He was advertised as someone who controls the strike zone and he’s proven that he can do that. Walk’s as good as a hit — the old saying. He keeps innings alive and he doesn’t expand the strike zone, he makes the pitcher get him out and he’ll take a walk, which is important.”

Speaking generally about such an approach (and not about Crawford in particular), Mackanin had only one small reservation.

“One of the problems with a guy who walks too often is you’d like him to be a little more aggressive at times,” he said, “but in general it’s good to see.”

Crawford made his eighth start at third base, and while he doesn’t possess the power bat normally required of someone who plays the position, he certainly looks like he can hold his own with the glove.

“There’s not really much transition,” he said. “I’m just going over there, reacting, catching the ball, throwing the ball.”

If nothing else, he gives the Phillies a possible alternative to Maikel Franco, who has struggled all year.

And if nothing else, the team as a whole has shown there is some reason for hope.