From afar, Lopes sizes up better-than-ever Phils

510770.jpg

From afar, Lopes sizes up better-than-ever Phils

LOS ANGELES -- Davey Lopes doesnt see as much of the Phillies as he did when he coached first base for the club from 2007 to 2010, but he still sees them enough to know they are the clear-cut favorite to get to the World Series in the National League.

Lopes, now first base coach for the Dodgers, just finished watching the Phillies for three days in Los Angeles, and he sees enough of them on television its easy to keep up with those early-starting East Coast games out West to know they are better than ever.

Obviously the pitching is better. Thats a given, he said, referring to the addition of Cliff Lee. The key is the pitching. It can shut you down. They have the No. 1 starting pitching in the game.

Lopes likes the addition of Hunter Pence. (Who doesnt?) The Philllies are 11-1 since Pence joined the team. He has hit .347 with three homers and nine RBIs in 12 games.

He really balances out their lineup, Lopes said.

Besides starting pitching, several areas of the Phillies team leap out at Lopes.

I think Ryan Madson has really stepped up his game, Lopes said. Brad Lidge had that perfect season in 2008, but this guy is about as good as anyone in the National League right now at closing the door.

Hes got that great changeup with that fastball. I see a confidence, a real confidence factor, in him. He doesnt get upset if he gives up a hit early. It seems like Chooch catcher Carlos Ruiz has done a good job taking charge with him.

Lopes pointed toward lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo as another pitcher that has improved. Bastardo has a 1.41 ERA in 48 games and has prevented 27 of 29 inherited runners from scoring. Good health has been a factor in Bastardos rise. Lopes revealed that Bastardo had trouble feeling the ball because of numbness in his fingers the last two seasons. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the problem stemmed from a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome and said the club still monitors Bastardo, who hasnt had any problems this season.

Bastardo always had the physical tools, Lopes said. He had some problems I know with the circulation in his fingers, but now hes outstanding.

The third area of improvement that jumps out at Lopes is his old friend Shane Victorino. Lopes has known Victorino since they were together briefly with the San Diego Padres in 2003. Later, as a member of the Phillies staff, Lopes helped hone Victorinos base-stealing skills. Victorino is having a strong 2011 season. He is ranked in the top 10 in the NL in batting average (.312), on-base percentage (.391) and slugging percentage (.542).

Vics good, Lopes said with a smile. Hes good. Hes a real key player. He may have surpassed a couple of other guys over there.

Like who?

Im not going to say, Lopes said with a laugh.

But Vic has definitely become one of their top guys, he added. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins. Hes smack in the middle of there. Charlie Manuel can use him a lot of different ways in the batting order. Hes grown up. Hes grown up mentally. Hes a true veteran now.

Lopes, a former all-star, Gold Glove second baseman and two-time NL stolen base champ, is not surprised that Rollins has performed well. Since July 1, the Phillies shortstop is hitting .295 with six homers, 22 RBIs and a .371 on-base percentage.

The easy thing is to say its because its his contract year, Lopes said. But Jimmy is always going to be Jimmy. Hes got a lot of physical ability. I think the expectations for him soared after the MVP season 2007 and the last couple of years the injuries got the best of him. But when hes healthy, hes one of the best players in the league. Hes still the key to that club. When hes on and doing all the things he can, it makes it very difficult for an opponent.

Hes a smart player, and hes finally healthy. That double-play combination is still as good as any in the game. Both play with pain.

Lopes knows about the pain that plagued Utley, Rollins double-play mate, as he wrestled with knee tendinitis last year. Lopes was actually the only member of the organization to acknowledge that Utley was hurting. The rest of the organization including Utley himself would not admit that anything was wrong, but Lopes has never been one to hide anything.

Maybe now youre seeing why Chases numbers came down, Lopes said. He didnt say anything, but he was playing hurt. He was hurting a lot. A lot of guys wouldnt have played.

Lopes said that Utleys sore knee affected his balance at the plate.

He didnt have his foundation, Lopes said. He was too good of a hitter to lose balance on off-speed pitches the way he did.

Lopes sees an improved Utley now.

He absolutely looks better, Lopes said. Hes running normal now. I talked to him the other day and he said, I finally feel healthy. Thats not good for opponents.

During his time with the Phillies, Lopes was privy to the inner mindset of the organization. The phrase championship window is thrown around often in media commentary about the Phils, but the concept is most certainly not a media creation.

You heard that all the time, Lopes said. Everybody over there knows it. They figured they had another few years to win again. The guys were getting into their 30s, and things are different when you get to be about 35. You dont get to balls you used to. Injuries pop up.

The window is wide open for the Phillies this year. They have the majors best record, the majors best pitching staff, and the offense, which was inconsistent in the early months of the season, has averaged an NL-high 5.42 runs per game since July 1.

The Phillies have got everything, Lopes said. Not too many teams match up with them.

Lopes warned that anything can happen in a short playoff series. He has personally seen what the Giants pitching can do to the Phillies and he thinks the Braves and Brewers are both very formidable clubs.

The Phillies are a great team, but short series are dangerous, Lopes said.

Lopes said he misses the Phillies, but has no regrets about moving back West and joining the team with which he spent the majority of his playing career.

This is where I belong, the 66-year-old baseball lifer said. I had four great years in Philly, but I started here, and I grew up here. Ill finish here.

And hell watch the 2011 Phillies from afar, just to see if they can go all the way.
E-mail Jim Salisbury at jsalisbury@comcastsportsnet.com

Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, whom Angels must move at some point

052516-phillies-resilience-webrefframe_1.jpg

Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, whom Angels must move at some point

Yes, the Angels are going to trade Mike Trout.

It may not happen this year or even next year, but eventually Angels GM Billy Eppler will accept the reality of the bleak future ahead for his franchise. Albert Pujols, who has five years and $140 million remaining on his contract after this season, has taken the baton from Ryan Howard for the worst contract in baseball. Good luck getting out of that deal. Other than the increasingly rare Pujols hot streak, they have nobody equipped to protect Trout in the lineup. 

The starting rotation has been patched together, with both Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney going down with elbow injuries early this season. Unless one of those guys comes back healthy, there isn’t a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on the roster. Theoretically, the Angels will have money to spend on the free-agent market with both C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver coming off the books after the season. But with Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson the likely headliners on the pitching market, a quick fix for the rotation seems unlikely. 

The 2017 free-agent market for hitters isn’t much better. Should Yoenis Cespedes opt out of his contract with the Mets, he could provide a potent presence behind Trout, but there will be stiff competition for his services and he’ll be in line for a massive payday. 

Toronto’s once-dynamic duo of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista should be available, but both appear to be trending downward. Giving either player a long-term deal is a risky investment at best. 

Building around the young players in the organization isn’t a viable option. By all accounts, the Angels have the worst farm system in baseball. You can check out those rankings here or here. This is a franchise in dire need of an infusion of young talent. 

We’ve seen the Phillies in a similar situation with Cole Hamels. Once there was no way forward to win with him, the only reasonable option was to trade him. Even the most ardent Hamels supporters have to admit now that moving him made sense.  

Yes, Trout is only 24 years old and is the best all-around player in baseball. The Angels should certainly explore every possible option to build a winner around the South Jersey native, who is in the second season of a six-year deal that will pay him $119 million from 2017 through 2020. But the franchise is trending in the wrong direction. If they cannot honestly see a path to contending with him, they should look to move him and jump-start a rebuild. There will be no shortage of suitors. 

So ignore the notion that you never trade an “inner-circle Hall of Famer,” which Trout certainly is on track to become. He is signed through 2019 and the clock is ticking. 

Let the bidding begin. 

Best of MLB: Walk-off single gives Giants 13th win in last 14 games

052516-postgame-offense-webbestvideo3_1280x720_692840515835.jpg

Best of MLB: Walk-off single gives Giants 13th win in last 14 games

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Crawford singled in Matt Duffy with two outs in the 10th inning, and the surging San Francisco Giants beat the San Diego Padres 4-3 Wednesday for their 13th win in 14 games.

Duffy singled off Brad Hand (1-2) with one out, pinch-hitter Hunter Pence popped out, Duffy advanced on a wild pitch and Crawford hit a 1-2 offering over center fielder Jon Jay as Duffy scored standing up.

Crawford also singled and scored after some alert baserunning in the second inning. Duffy and Denard Span drove in runs for the NL West-leading Giants.

San Francisco completed a three-game sweep, extended its winning streak to five and improved to 9-0 against the Padres this season. The Giants' two walkoff wins in the series were against Hand (see full recap).

Arrieta moves to 9-0 in Cubs' win over Cards
ST. LOUIS -- Jake Arrieta remained unbeaten on the season despite allowing as many as four runs for the first time in nearly a year and the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 9-8 on Wednesday.

Arrieta (9-0) joined the White Sox's Chris Sale as the only nine-game winners in the majors.

Arrieta allowed four runs in a regular-season game for the first time since June 16, 2015.

Arrieta became the first Cub to win his first nine decisions since Kenny Holtzman in 1967 and it is the best start to a season for the franchise since Jim McCormick went 16-0 in 1886.

Kris Bryant hit a three-run homer and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist each drove in two for the Cubs (see full recap).

Bradley extends hit streak to 29 in BoSox victory
BOSTON -- Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his major league-best hitting streak to 29 games, Xander Bogaerts homered to extend his hitting streak to 18 games and the Boston Red Sox beat the Colorado Rockies 10-3 on Wednesday night for their fourth straight win.

Travis Shaw had three RBIs and Boston moved to a season-best 12 games over .500. The Red Sox have scored eight or more runs 10 times in their last 14 home games.

Steven Wright (4-4) had another solid outing, giving up three runs, two earned. He has now given up three runs or fewer in eight of his nine starts.

Chad Bettis (4-3) held the Red Sox scoreless through three innings but was responsible for seven runs over the next two innings before getting pulled.

The Rockies have lost six of their last seven -- all on the road (see full recap).

Odubel Herrera flips Phillies into winners over Tigers before big trip to Wrigley Field

052516-borujos-webbestvideo3_1280x720_692832835893.jpg

Odubel Herrera flips Phillies into winners over Tigers before big trip to Wrigley Field

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — At least Odubel Herrera was honest about it.

“I didn’t expect to hit it that far,” he said with a big grin on his face late Wednesday afternoon.

A couple of hours earlier, Herrera helped key an 8-5 Phillies’ win over the Detroit Tigers with a towering three-run home run into the right-field seats against Anibal Sanchez (see Instant Replay).

Herrera unloaded on the hanging slider and finished with his bat high.

As the bat reached its apex, Herrera didn’t just let it go. He flipped it in the air as if to say, ‘Uh-huh, I crushed that one.’ In the annals of bat flips, it wasn’t quite Jose Bautista quality, but it wasn’t far off. The flip was so dramatic that Herrera admitted after the game that he would not have been surprised if a Tigers pitcher had retaliated and stuck a pitch in his ribs later in the game.

Retribution never came. And Herrera left Detroit with a smile on his face and yet another big day for the Phillies. He is leading the club with a .327 batting average and his .440 on-base percentage is second-best in baseball.

Herrera's big home run helped make a winner out of Aaron Nola and the Phillies on a day when they really needed a win. After all, they had lost four of their previous five and are headed into the den of baseball’s best team, the Chicago Cubs, on Friday.

“For me, it was a must-win,” said manager Pete Mackanin, whose club is 26-21. “We’d lost four of five and I felt like we needed to come out of here with a win.

“The guys battled the whole game. To me it looked like they played like they had to win this game, which was nice to see. It looked like they played knowing we had to win. They were grinding and coming up with hits. Call it what you want, it was just the feeling I got.

“I’m not going to say I’m anxious to see the Cubs; they’re a hell of a team. But I’m hopeful we can take two out of three.”

The Tigers are one of baseball’s best hitting teams.

The Phillies are one of the worst. They entered the day scoring just 3.2 runs per game.

But on this day, the Phillies out-hit the Tigers, 12-10, to salvage one game in the series.

Nola went six innings, allowed four runs, a walk and struck out six. He left with a 7-4 lead. Things got hairy in the seventh, but Hector Neris cleaned up things for David Hernandez, and Jeanmar Gomez registered his majors-leading 17th save.

In between, Peter Bourjos had a couple of big hits, including his first homer of the season. Andres Blanco started at second over Cesar Hernandez and had a couple of big hits, as well. Bourjos and Blanco even hooked up on a double steal with Blanco becoming the first Phillie to swipe home since Chase Utley in 2009. (An off-line throw to second by Tigers catcher James McCann helped.) 

“We have to try things,” Mackanin said. “We can’t bang it out with most teams so we have to try that kind of stuff, take chances.”

The Phillies actually banged it on this day.

Bourjos’ homer in the seventh provided some valuable cushion.

There are no cheap homers in spacious Comerica Park. Bourjos’ homer traveled 401 feet according to ESPN’s play by play.

Though Bourjos claimed he did not see Herrera’s bat flip in fifth inning, he was aware of it. For the record, Bourjos did not flip his bat on his homer. He put his head down and ran.

“I don’t have that kind of swag,” he said with a laugh.

Bat flips make some folks, particularly old-schoolers, uncomfortable. Bautista’s famous bat flip against Texas in the playoffs last season led to simmering tensions all winter and eventually a brawl between the two teams two weeks ago.

Mackanin actually seemed a little uncomfortable talking about Herrera’s flip.

“I did not see it,” Mackanin said. “A lot of players believe that they should be able to celebrate. But I didn’t see it. I wish you never brought it up.”

Herrera explained that he always flips his bat, even when he makes outs. This one had a little extra oomph, he said, because, "I didn’t expect to hit it that far.”

And how far did he hit it?

Well, ESPN’s play by play said it traveled 409 feet. MLB’s Statcast said it went 427.

Either way, that’s a long Uber ride.

Herrera was asked what was more impressive, the flip or the homer?

“Both,” he said with a laugh.

Herrera has become a more demonstrative player in his second year in the league. He’s letting his emotions show. On Monday night, frustration over a poor at-bat got the best of him. He did not run out a ball back to the pitcher and was benched.

On Wednesday, his emotion was more triumphant, hence the bat flip. But sometimes that can make an opponent angry. There were no repercussions Wednesday and probably won’t be because the Tigers and Phillies don’t see each other again this season. But down the road?

“I’m not worried,” Mackanin said.

“It was nothing personal,” Herrera said. “It was natural.”