Got defense? Brown, Young had it on Thursday

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Got defense? Brown, Young had it on Thursday

CLEARWATER, Fla. – There were a number of reasons for the Phillies’ disappointing season last year.

Injuries.

Poor bullpen work.

Don’t underestimate defense.

In their 102-win season of 2011, the Phils had the best fielding percentage in the major leagues and made just 74 errors.

Last season, they slipped to 15th in fielding percentage and made 101 errors while losing their five-year hold on the NL East.

Coming into this camp, defense loomed as a large question mark for the Phils because some of the players they were adding to their lineup had shortcomings on that side of the ball, and because, well, the team is getting older and age can rob a player of range.

Defense is still an issue for this team. Charlie Manuel moaned about it after some sloppy games early in camp. But Manuel had no complaints Thursday. His team played excellent defense in a 10-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins at windy Bright House Field.

What had to make Manuel happiest were the guys who played the good defense. Question mark Domonic Brown made two nice running plays in the outfield. Question mark Michael Young made two nice plays at third base. And Chase Utley, the man whose knees are always a quiet concern, showed big hops as he rose high in the air to knock down a line drive and save a run.

“That’s what you want,” said starting pitcher Cliff Lee, speaking for all the pitchers.

Six percent of the runs allowed by the Phillies in 2011 were unearned. That number rose to nine percent in 2012.

How discouraging is it on a pitcher when he’s not backed by good defense?

“Very,” Lee said.

Lee acknowledged that the Phillies could have played better defense last year but added that there were a lot of shortcomings to the team’s game in 2012. How much can the Phils improve on defense this season? Time will tell. Young and Brown will have a lot to say about that and so will Delmon Young and Darin Ruf in the outfield. One thing is clear: If the Phillies play as porously as they did last season, they will be in trouble. It could seriously impact the strength of the team -- the pitching staff.

“We want guys to make plays,” Lee said. “This is the big leagues. We expect guys to make plays. If they don’t, you have to get the ball back and try to make another pitch and hopefully they make the plays. I think everyone holds each other accountable as far as that goes. It’s not like you’re mad at him or he did it on purpose, but I think all of us expect each other to make fundamentally sound plays. When you’re giving outs away, you’re giving the other team a chance to win.

“It’s about focus and making sure you’re in the moment and anticipating the ball more than anything. You’ve got to do that on the mound, too. It’s not just the position players. It’s the pitchers, too. It’s everyone. It’s something we can all do a better job on.”

Brown continues to have an excellent spring. A 2-for-4 performance Thursday left him hitting .400. His swing looks easy and strong. The ball is jumping off his bat. Gone is the uptightness of previous spring auditions. He is playing with a relaxed, confident gait. That confidence is also showing in the field. Brown is running all-out for balls. He’s not tentative.

On Thursday, Brown cut off one ball in left-center, saving a double and made a long run to snare a sinking line drive. He said he wouldn’t have made either play last year. Of course, sore knees would have been part of the reason for that. He’s healthy now. But he’s also throwing caution to the wind, playing full speed and letting things happen instead of forcing them. That comes from confidence.

“He ran like he wanted to get those balls,” Manuel said.

“I’m feeling good, feeling healthy, that’s the key,” Brown said. “I’m out there having fun, trying to make good reads.”

On Thursday, Brown did more than try. He succeeded. His work -- and Young’s at third base -- was a step in the right direction for a team that needs to improve its defense.

Tonight's lineup: Cody Asche bats 3rd; Ryan Howard in for Tommy Joseph

Tonight's lineup: Cody Asche bats 3rd; Ryan Howard in for Tommy Joseph

After a scorching road trip, Cody Asche bats third for the Phillies in Friday's series opener against the defending champion Kansas City Royals. 

Asche went 12 for 30 on the road trip with six doubles and six RBIs. In 90 plate appearances this season, he's hit .289/.333/.482 with 10 doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs.

Peter Bourjos, also playing well lately, bats second. After hitting .164 in April and .230 in May, Bourjos hit .410 in June, going 25 for 61. The hot streak has his season batting line at a respectable .262/.300/.391.

Ryan Howard gets the start at first base in place of Tommy Joseph, who is down to .223 on the season after going 0 for 11 in Arizona earlier this week.

Howard is 3 for 19 lifetime against Friday's opponent, right-hander Ian Kennedy.

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

The Royals may be without their hottest hitter, Kendrys Morales, who is 12 for 16 over his last four games. Morales is Kansas City's everyday DH but would obviously be unavailable in an NL park unless the Royals move Eric Hosmer to right field. Hosmer has played just three innings away from first base in the last three seasons.

Phillies-Royals 5 things: Defending champs awful on the road

Phillies-Royals 5 things: Defending champs awful on the road

Phillies (35-45) vs. Royals (42-36)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies are back home this weekend to take on the defending champion Kansas City Royals after a 5-4 road trip. A six-game homestand begins Friday with the Phils taking on the Royals and Braves before heading to Colorado for four games at Coors Field before the All-Star break.

Let's take a look at Friday's series opener:

1. Royals reeling on the road
Kansas City is positioned atop the AL wild-card race, but the Royals have been one of the majors' worst road teams this season. They're 15-25 away from Kauffman Stadium, the fourth-worst road record in MLB, better than only the Twins, Reds and Brewers. 

K.C. has scored 128 runs in 40 road games, an average of 3.2 per game that ranks dead-last in the majors. It's puzzling given the Royals' talent that they would be so much better at home. It wasn't the case either of the last two seasons, when they went a combined 91-71 on the road.

The Royals did, however, sweep a two-game series in St. Louis Wednesday and Thursday.

2. Banged-up champs
Alex Gordon, the best defensive leftfielder in baseball, returned to the Royals last weekend after missing over a month with a wrist injury. But Kansas City is still undermanned with Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, their second and third hitters, out. 

Moustakas is out for the season with a torn ACL, while Cain went on the DL this week with a hamstring strain.

Cain was hitting .290 for the Royals with a .752 OPS during a streaky 2016 season. 

Moustakas and Gordon suffered their injuries in a collision in late May. It was a genuine blow to the Royals' chances at repeating. Moustakas hit .284 last season with 34 doubles, 22 homers and 82 RBIs. In his place, the Royals have used rookie Cheslor Cuthbert, a 23-year-old from Nicaragua.

Cuthbert has hit .256/.299/.419 in 39 games in Moustakas' place.

3. The DH effect
The Royals' everyday first baseman is Eric Hosmer, a slick fielder and perennial .290-.300 hitter. 

Their designated hitter is Kendrys Morales, who is absolutely on fire right now. He's 12 for 16 with four extra-base hits in his last four games and has hit .455 with a 1.310 OPS in his last 22. Over the last four days, Morales has raised his batting average by 31 points and his OPS by 69.

But ... with the Royals playing this series in an NL stadium, they won't be able to start both. That is, unless they move Hosmer to right field, where he's played just three innings in the last three seasons.

Could be a big break for the Phillies, missing Kansas City's hottest hitter. Stay tuned.

4. Hellickson vs. Kennedy
The Phillies hand the ball to Jeremy Hellickson for his 17th start of the season. He's 5-6 with a 4.23 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP to this point, with 84 strikeouts, 24 walks and 16 home runs allowed in 93⅔ innings.

Hellickson is coming off two good starts in a row, having allowed three runs in seven innings to the Diamondbacks and one earned run in six innings to the Giants.

While it seems like it's been an up and down season for Hellickson, in reality it's been mostly up. He's allowed three runs or fewer in 11 of 16 starts and has truly struggled only four times, in back-to-back starts against the Nationals and Mets in mid-April, in St. Louis on May 2 and in D.C. on June 10. 

Otherwise, Hellickson has kept the Phillies in games and kept hitters off-balance with an elite changeup. 

He's faced Kansas City a bunch from his days in the American League. Active Royals are 16 for 68 (.235) against him with two extra-base hits, five walks and 12 strikeouts.

5. Scouting Kennedy 
The Phillies face Ian Kennedy, the veteran right-hander who joined the Royals on a five-year, $70 million deal this past winter. Kennedy has been solid in his first 15 starts with his new team, going 6-6 with a 3.96 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and .230 opponents' batting average. He's struck out 85 batters in 88⅔ innings.

Kennedy is coming off his most dominant outing of the year, a seven-inning, three-hit, one-run, 11-strikeout performance against the Astros. 

Current Phillies have done little against Kennedy, going 8 for 53 (.151) with just two extra-base hits, a Carlos Ruiz double and Freddy Galvis homer. They do have 10 walks against him, however.

Kennedy is mostly a three-pitch pitcher who throws a four-seam fastball in the 92 to 94 mph range, a changeup in the mid-80s and a curveball in the high-70s. On rare occasions he'll throw a cutter to righties.

Phillies By the Numbers: Some good, some bad at halfway point

Phillies By the Numbers: Some good, some bad at halfway point

Some good, some bad in this edition of Phillies By the Numbers, 80 games into their season:

80 games in
At 35-45, the Phils are eight games better through 80 than they were last season. 

A year ago at this point, they were 27-53, had scored 268 runs and allowed 399 for a run differential of minus-131. 

This year, they've scored 278 runs and allowed 373 for a run differential of minus-95. Even though their early-season success was built off wins in one-run games, the Phils are still a better team than they were in 2015. 

Herrera's OBP
Odubel Herrera was in the top-five in the majors in on-base percentage for much of the first two months but has dropped to 16th, at .393. Still, that's good for third among all MLB centerfielders, behind only Mike Trout (.422) and injured Dexter Fowler (.398).

Herrera's defense
Herrera has seven errors. No other major-league centerfielder has more than four. And truthfully, Herrera could have a few more if plays were scored differently in the moment. 

Herrera's seven errors are as many as every NL West centerfielder has combined.

Lucky or good?
Herrera also has the third-highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in the majors since the start of last season at .375, behind only Xander Bogaerts (.377) and Paul Goldschmidt (.376). 

You could say Herrera's lucky, but he also has 35 infield hits over that span, third-most in the NL behind Starling Marte and Dee Gordon. That'll keep the BABIP high.

Going the other way
Of Herrera's balls in play, 37.3 percent have been to the opposite field, the highest rate in the NL.

Franco YTD
Through 74 games, Maikel Franco is hitting .243/.302/.435 with 12 doubles, 13 home runs and 41 RBIs.

Through 74 games last season, Franco was hitting .278/.339/.483 with 21 doubles, 12 homers and 47 RBIs.

Franco has played essentially one full season since coming up in mid-May 2015. In 640 plate appearances, he's hit .262 with a .791 OPS, 34 doubles, 27 homers and 91 RBIs.

Walks and whiffs
As committed as the Phillies seem to be, top to bottom, in improving their players' pitch selection, the major-league team still barely walks. The Phillies have walked in just 6.5 percent of their plate appearances, last in the NL and second-worst in baseball to the Royals. The Cubs lead the majors at 11.0 percent, but even below-average teams like the Brewers and Braves have out-walked the Phillies by 100 and 31, respectively.

The Phillies have also swung at the second-most pitches outside the strike zone, 31.7 percent, ahead of only the Braves.

And they've swung and missed at 11.3 percent of pitches, the highest rate in the NL.

Major-league pop-ups
Infield flies account for 10.5 percent of the Phillies' flyballs, the highest rate in the NL. Not good.

K/9 unit
The Phillies set the MLB record for the month of April with 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings. 

They were middle of the pack, 15th, with 7.8 K/9 in May. They were 12th in June at 8.3.

Overall, Phillies pitchers rank seventh in the majors with 8.72 K/9, behind the Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Marlins and Red Sox.

Uncle Charlie
It's no surprise that the Phillies — with Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez — have thrown the most curveballs of any pitching staff in baseball, 17.1 percent. The MLB average is right around 10 percent, and the Yankees rank last at 5.3 percent.

No NL team has thrown fewer sliders than the Phils' 9.2 percent.