Zambrano struggles with command, velocity

5-29-13-zambrano-ap.jpg

Zambrano struggles with command, velocity

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The Phillies didn’t waste much time in activating John Lannan after his rehab outing for Double A Reading on Wednesday night. When the veteran lefty takes his next turn on Monday, it will be at Citizens Bank Park against the Washington Nationals.

Now the Phillies are faced with another decision.

What do they do with Carlos Zambrano?

“I felt like I was ready two outings ago,” Zambrano said on Thursday night. “It’s not up to me.”

With a July 1 deadline when the pitcher can opt out of his deal with the Phillies if he is not on the big-league roster, the club can get up to three more looks at Zambrano’s progress.

But will they need it? Though the pitcher’s stats in four official rehab outings have been impressive -- a 1.27 ERA with 17 strikeouts, 11 walks and 14 hits in 21 1/3 innings -- the numbers don’t seem to match the performance.

The problems for the 32-year-old appear to be his control and his velocity -- or lack thereof. When he was battling for the National League Cy Young Award just a few years ago, Zambrano routinely threw his fastball into the mid-to-high 90s. Last Saturday for Reading and again on Thursday night at Coca-Cola Park for Lehigh Valley, Zambrano’s fastball topped out at 88 mph.

There is a good explanation for the diminished velocity, according to Zambrano.

“You have to remember that I have more than 2,000 innings on my shoulder,” Zambrano said. “I don’t know what happened today, but I was able to go out there and compete and keep the team in the game.”

Pinpoint control, of course, has never been Zambrano’s forte. In 2006 and 2007, the burly right-hander led the National League in walks and in 2004 he led the league in hit batsmen.

Against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Thursday night, Zambrano walked four hitters, including one with the bases loaded to force in a run.

Afterwards, Zambrano said he used the outing to work on his pitches.

“It was a pretty good test for me,” Zambrano said. “The bases loaded and I gave up two runs. After the walk I was able to get the next guy out. It was pretty good. Unfortunately, I gave up two runs, but it was a good situation to work on my pitches and work on my situations.”

He definitely got his money’s worth on the pitches. Zambrano needed just 22 pitches to get through the first two innings. He retired the first eight batters before walking the No. 9 hitter, Alberto Gonzalez. A two-out single put runners on the corners and pushed Zambrano’s pitch count before he escaped.

He wasn’t as lucky in the fourth inning. That’s when Zambrano walked the leadoff hitter, gave up a line-drive double to Dan Johnson and then a sacrifice fly. Another walk followed by a single loaded the bases.

Zambrano could see the end after getting a strikeout for the second out, but that’s where Gonzalez, the No. 9 hitter, walked on a full count to send in the second run.

Zambrano was a little more efficient in the fifth inning, facing just four hitters. But by the end of the inning, his pitch count had reached 101 after needing 79 pitches to get through the third, fourth and fifth innings.

Just like he did after each of his rehab outings, Zambrano declared himself ready to join the Phillies following his performance for Lehigh Valley. Though he says he doesn’t want to work as a reliever, Zambrano appears to be caught in a numbers crunch.

Whose spot does Zambrano take in the Phillies’ rotation?

Lannan takes the rotation spot held by right-hander Tyler Cloyd, who posted a 2-2 record with a 3.41 ERA in six starts for the Phillies. Rookie Jonathan Pettibone is 3-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 10 starts and has shown poise beyond his 22 years.

That leaves Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick, and Zambrano surely won’t be replacing any of those guys.

No doubt that Zambrano is aware of the Phillies’ situation.

“I think I have to get better,” he said.

Zambrano is right on the mark on that one.

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."