Zambrano throws best game yet in comeback bid

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Zambrano throws best game yet in comeback bid

Carlos Zambrano's chances of joining the Phillies may have increased after Tuesday night's successful start for Triple A Lehigh Valley.

In arguably his best outing in his major-league comeback attempt, Zambrano tossed seven shutout innings and allowed just five hits and a walk while striking out six in the IronPigs' 3-0 win at Toledo. Of his 108 pitches thrown, 73 were for strikes.

Ruben Amaro Jr. said just two days ago after Zambrano's fourth minor-league start that he was not yet ready to pitch in the big leagues.

“Not based on what I saw his last outing, not in my mind,” Amaro said Sunday. “I’d like to see him pitch again [in the minors]. We’ll keep a close eye on his starts and how effective he is. But he’s not ready yet in my mind.”

The 32-year-old struggled with command his last time out -- also with Lehigh Valley -- walking four men in just five innings while also giving up four hits and two runs. Before Tuesday night, he had doled out 11 free passes in 21 1/3 innings.

The Phillies have until July 1 to promote Zambrano to the majors, or the right-hander can opt out of his deal with the club. The Phillies signed him in mid-May to add depth to a depleted rotation.

Zambrano has stated he wants to be a starting pitcher, citing his struggles as a reliever in the Marlins' bullpen last year, when he allowed eight runs, eight walks and 23 hits in 17 1/3 innings of work. Overall in 2012, Zambrano went 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA but had a career-worst 1.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 games (20 starts).

Tonight's Lineup: After hitting 6th Friday, Odubel Herrera moves up to 2-hole

Tonight's Lineup: After hitting 6th Friday, Odubel Herrera moves up to 2-hole

After watching his club get smacked around in a 9-4 loss to the Mets on Friday, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has tinkered with his lineup for Saturday's game at Citi Field.

Odubel Herrera moves up to the two-hole after hitting sixth Friday, while Aaron Altherr goes from second to third and Jimmy Paredes gets the start in left and bats seventh. Ryan Howard starts again at first base and bats fifth.

Herrera, who has been struggling since the All-Star break with a .257 average, has lost his leadoff spot to Cesar Hernandez but is starting to find his swing again.

In the last seven days, Herrera is 5 for 17 with a double and a run scored. In August, the centerfielder is hitting .288 two homers and five RBIs.

Altherr, who played left field Friday, moves over to right field and Peter Bourjos gets the night off. Altherr is hitting .255 with four home runs and 19 RBIs on the season.

Here is the full Phillies lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Aaron Altherr, RF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

For more on tonight's's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes.

Phillies option Jorge Alfaro back to Double A Reading

Phillies option Jorge Alfaro back to Double A Reading

As expected, the Phillies on Saturday optioned prized catching prospect Jorge Alfaro back to Double A Reading after a one game stint with the big club.

Alfaro was called up for Friday's series opener in New York against the Mets because newly acquired veteran backstop A.J. Ellis had yet to arrive with the team. Ellis was acquired Thursday from the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the trade that sent Carlos Ruiz to L.A.

The 23-year-old Alfaro is expected to return to the Phillies once Reading's season is over and MLB rosters expand in September. The Fightin Phils, at 83-48, are the Eastern League's top team and very much could make it to the championship series.

Alfaro, acquired in the Cole Hamels trade last summer, has a .279 average with 13 home runs and 61 RBIs in 90 games with Reading this season. He did not get play Friday night against the Mets.

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies (59-69) at Mets (65-63)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

Both the Mets and Phillies go into the second game of the series with their best (healthy) starter on the mound. Noah Syndergaard, known by many as "Thor," takes the hill while trying to keep the Mets' playoff hopes alive, while Jeremy Hellickson makes the 26th start of his rebound season. 

Here are five things to know before Saturday night's matchup.

1. Playing spoilers
If the Mets want to make the playoffs in 2016 and reprise 2015's run to the World Series, they're gonna have to go through the Phillies. 

Not in the playoffs of course. But in the regular season.

After losing Friday night, the Phillies are six games back of the Mets and 10 games back of a playoff spot. They're not going to the postseason, barring a miracle.

But the Mets still have every intent to compete for a wild-card spot despite injuries all over the place (see point No. 2). They have the second-easiest schedule the rest of the way (Nationals have the easiest) and that is in large part thanks to games remaining against the Braves … and the Phillies.

Including Saturday night's game, the Mets and Phillies have nine games left against each other this season. That's more than enough to affect the Mets' postseason chances. The Mets are just 6-4 against the Phillies so far this year and will need to be much better in the final nine games to make a legitimate run.

But the Phillies can also spoil other teams' postseason chances. They have six games left against the Marlins and four games vs. the Pirates. This doesn't even mention the seven games with the Nationals, who are fighting for homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs while holding a comfy lead in the NL East. 

2. Laying down the hammer
Matt Harvey is out for the year. Steven Matz is having shoulder issues and is on the disabled list. Jonathon Niese, newly reaquired, was injured four batters into his Tuesday start. Zack Wheeler seems far away from returning from Tommy John surgery. And to top all of it, Jacob deGrom's next start will be skipped to work on mechanical issues.

So that leaves Friday's starter, Bartolo Colon, and Syndergaard as the Mets' only experienced starters still on turn in the rotation at the moment. Certainly not how the Mets drew it up.

While this shows the perils of building around pitching, there is still the one shining ray of hope: Syndergaard. The righty flamethrower had his bumps in the road, his non-ace like starts, but for the most part, he's been just as advertised. 

Here's a telling stat: Syndergaard has made 24 starts and only in three has he given up more than three runs. As electric as he was as a 22-year-old rookie last year (3.24 ERA with 166 strikeouts in 24 starts), he's been even more so this year. He's given up more hits in almost the same number of innings, but he's limited home runs and struck out more batters. 

Overall, he has an 11-7 record and a 2.61 ERA. His 5.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio is one of the best marks in baseball and so is his 0.5 home runs per nine innings this year. With a hit-or-miss offense and a struggling middle relief corps, Syndergaard continues to carry the Mets to some modicum of playoff contention.

3. Hellickson re-established
It's been said and written plenty of times, but Hellickson was a clear reclamation project when the Phillies acquired him in the offseason. 

He hadn't pitched to an ERA below 4.52 since 2012, his second full season in baseball. His velocity had fallen after a shoulder injury and the righty based mostly on command was beginning to give up way too many hits. The Tampa Bay Rays, the team that drafted him, dealt him and after one year, the Diamondbacks gave up on him, too.

But in five months with the Phillies, Hellickson has re-established himself as the pitcher he was before. His hits per nine innings have improved back to their 2012 numbers and he has lowered his walk rate while keeping his strikeouts at a career high rate. 

So for the first time in four years, Hellickson is an above-average MLB pitcher. Besides pushing back his last start, he's been consistently pitching every fifth game, one of the few constants for the Phillies' rotation. He's thrown 150 innings, his most since 2013 and he has a month left.

And he's now won four straight decisions. The Phils have won his last six starts and he's given up three or fewer runs in each one. While he is putting himself in line for a big payday in the offseason, the Phillies are certainly happy with the production they've gotten from the 29-year-old righty.

4. Battle of the bullpens
Based on ERA, the Phillies and Mets have had two of the five worst bullpens in baseball since the All-Star break. Yet it's been for very different reasons.

For the Phillies, it's simple: The rotation has been in disarray. Even the guys who've been healthy have simply failed to get far into games. Hellickson is the only starter to complete at least seven innings since the break and even he hasn't done it more than the one time. 

If the starters weren't giving length but were giving the bullpen leads on a consistent basis, Pete Mackanin could go to his top relievers like Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, who have been pretty steady despite a recent hiccup by Gomez against the Cardinals. But they haven't been given many leads and that has meant mop-up relievers. 

So with the long reliever getting more of the innings, it's easy to see why the Phils' pen has the fifth-worst ERA (4.52) of any MLB bullpen since the break. 

But what's been the Mets' problem to cause a 4.74 ERA, second worst in the second half? It's a little more complicated. First, they've had some of the same issues as the Phillies. Starters either getting hurt (Niese) or struggling and having to exit early leads to same results as the Phillies. 

Yet it's also the back-end relievers struggling. Although he's had a good August, Jeurys Familia has blown three saves since the break after none before the break. Jerry Blevins has been slightly worse since the break. And Hansel Robles, a key cog in middle relief, has a 6.41 ERA in the second half. 

The mop-up relievers have done a lot of the damage, but the Mets' back end isn't as steady as it needs to be. 

5. This and that
• Syndergaard beat the Phillies in April at Citziens Bank Park. He held the Phils to just one run over seven innings and struck out eight batters. He gave up just five hits and two walks.

• Hellickson has made three starts against the Mets this year and is 1-1. He got a win at Citi Field on April 10 by allowing just two runs in 5⅔ innings. He got a no-decision after allowing 10 hits and four runs in 4⅓ 10 days later. Hellickson was beat up in his first start after the break, losing to the Mets in a six-inning start on July 15. He gave up four runs on seven hits and two home runs in that game.

• Ryan Howard is 2 for 7 against Syndergaard with a home run and two walks in nine plate appearances. Odubel Herrera is 1 for 9 with an RBI single. 

• Curtis Granderson has faced Hellickson more than any other Mets batter thanks to their time with the Yankees and Rays, respectively. In 29 plate appearances, he is 5 for 25 with a home run, two walks, seven strikeouts and two hit-by-pitches.

• Yoenis Cespedes is 5 for 12 against Hellickson with two home runs and a walk.