MLB Notes: Pujols not running, still eyes opener

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MLB Notes: Pujols not running, still eyes opener

Domonic Brown continues to swing a hot bat for the Phillies in spring training (see story).

Now, some other news and notes from around the majors.

Pujols not running yet, eyes opener
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols is nearly ready to start running on the field in the Los Angeles Angels slugger's deliberate recovery from offseason surgery on his right knee.

Pujols is taking batting practice and running on a treadmill at spring training, and he participated in fielding drills Tuesday. He's expected to start running on the field later this week. The $240 million first baseman isn't expected to play in a Cactus League game until mid-March, but Angels manager Mike Scioscia has no doubt Pujols will be ready for opening day.

Pujols is the Angels' only position player who hasn't played a game in spring training yet. New right fielder Josh Hamilton debuted for Los Angeles against Arizona on Tuesday.

Hamilton hitless in Angels debut
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton went 0 for 3 in his Cactus League debut with the Los Angeles Angels, playing five innings in their 7-7 tie with an Arizona Diamondbacks split squad on Tuesday.

Hamilton grounded out on the first pitch he faced and later flied out twice for the Angels, who signed him a five-year, $125 million free-agent deal to leave Texas for its AL West rivals.

Hamilton had no challenges in right field at Diablo Stadium. He says he's thrilled with his first spring in the Angels' clubhouse, although still a bit unfamiliar with his new teammates.

Gerardo Parra hit a two-run homer and Rod Barajas added a fourth-inning solo shot for the Diamondbacks. Parra warmed up for his stint with Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic with a first-inning shot over Hamilton's head in right.

Indians name Masterson opening-day starter
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- New Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona has named Justin Masterson his starter for opening day.

Francona told the right-hander in the dugout Tuesday before Cleveland played the Kansas City Royals.

It will be the second time Masterson starts a season opener. A year ago, the 28-year-old struck out 10 over eight innings against the Blue Jays in Cleveland, allowing two hits and one run in a game that the Indians went on to lose in 16 innings, 7-4.

The Indians open in Toronto on April 2. Their home opener against the New York Yankees on April 8 already is sold out.

Next in line? For Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin's promotion an 'extra boost'

Next in line? For Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin's promotion an 'extra boost'

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The starting rotation at Triple A Lehigh Valley looks a lot different than it did just five weeks ago. For nearly two months, the IronPigs' staff was led by Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Mark Appel, a trio of right-handers who spent time in big-league spring training and looked close to debuting in The Show.

Eflin graduated to the majors, where he's made four starts. Appel is out for the season after undergoing elbow surgery Wednesday. Thompson is the last one left.

But if Thompson, one of five prospects acquired from the Rangers in last summer's Cole Hamels trade, keeps pitching the way he has lately, his promotion could be next.

"I was extremely happy for him," Thompson said Wednesday when asked if Eflin's call-up made him realize he might be next in line. 

"For me, seeing the Phillies are actually — especially this early in the season — willing to go get a young guy that's not on the 40-man roster and give him a chance ... not that I need any more incentive to go out and work harder, but seeing that, it gives you a little extra boost."

Thompson has needed no extra boost lately. He's had a terrific month of June, going 3-0 with a 0.76 ERA and .211 opponents' batting average. He's allowed three earned runs in his last 35⅓ innings to lower his season ERA from 4.23 to 2.88.

Like teammate Nick Williams, also a part of the Hamels trade, Thompson got off to a slow start this season after dominating last summer at Double A Reading. Thompson blamed it on poor mechanics that led to misses over the plate.

"I was putting my body into bad positions to try to make pitches, and against some of these veteran, experienced hitters, they were taking advantage of 2-0, poorly located fastballs or hanging breaking balls late in counts," Thompson said. "That doesn't play here and that definitely doesn't play in Philly either."

Now, Thompson is locked in and locating all of his pitches, mostly utilizing his sinker and slider. Both look like major-league ready pitches. Thompson also has a four-seam fastball and curveball, but it's the sinker-slider combo that has generated so many groundballs lately.

Thompson has induced 49 groundballs in last four starts. That's the pitcher he's become. In 22 starts in the Phillies' system, Thompson's groundball rate is just a hair under 50 percent. 

It's natural when looking at Thompson's stats to wonder where the strikeouts have gone. When the Phillies acquired Thompson, he had 330 strikeouts in 329 minor-league innings. But in 135⅔ innings with Reading and Lehigh Valley, he's struck out just 97 batters, or 6.4 per nine innings.

"More than anything, I think I'm executing some pitches early in counts, which might be taking away from the strikeouts a little bit but I'm getting more double plays, more groundball heavy, which is good," Thompson said. "I think as the season goes on, hopefully with a little bit better execution later in counts the strikeouts will come. But I'm extremely happy with how many groundballs I'm getting.

"Very rarely do I like go out and try to get a groundball. Usually you're talking about generating weak contact, not necessarily a groundball. I think it's just me being good mechanically and being able to locate down in the zone."

Thompson says he can still alter his approach in clear strikeout situations. That's important, and it's something the Phillies wanted to see Eflin improve upon in the minors this season after Eflin struck out just 4.7 batters per nine innings last year. 

"Sometimes in strikeout counts, maybe go four-seam heavy and the velocity is gonna go up a little bit," Thompson said. "I think the mindset (in strikeout situations) is just be a little bit more aggressive with all your pitches, every pitch you're trying to make a swing-and-miss pitch or really trying to dot a hard four-seamer away. So the mindset kind of changes a little bit, and I think that spills into the velocity and everything goes up with it."

Thompson was billed as a hard thrower when the Phillies acquired him from the Rangers. He was billed as a hard thrower when the Rangers acquired him from the Tigers the year before for reliever Joakim Soria. But these days, you'll see more 90-92 mph pitches from Thompson than 94. 

Throwing 90 to 92 might not get Thompson national attention or praise from outlets that rank minor-leaguers, but it's made him more effective. You can't argue with results. You can't argue with the 2.52 ERA Thompson has since joining the Phils' system.

"One of the big things is, (earlier in my career), I tried to go out and throw harder, faster, better, stronger," Thompson said. "But I think my game is more suited to every now and then easing off the gas pedal and let the ball sink, use my breaking ball. I got too wrapped up in trying to be a big velocity guy."

Nick Williams on benchings, hot streak, success vs. lefties and walks

Nick Williams on benchings, hot streak, success vs. lefties and walks

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — With how much interest there is in the Phillies' minor-league system these days, every multi-hit game, every scoreless pitching performance, every transgression by a top prospect is exaggerated.

Triple A outfielder Nick Williams was benched again this week, the third time in the last two months Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage sat him down as a disciplinary measure. The last two times have been for a lack of hustle — two weeks ago Williams didn't run out a fly ball that was dropped, and earlier this week he didn't bust it down the line on a grounder back to the pitcher.

It doesn't matter what anyone who covers or watches the Phillies thinks — clearly, Brundage and the organization as a whole feels it's necessary to teach Williams these lessons now so they don't pop up again in the future. Williams said the right things when he was benched in mid-June and said them again this week. On Wednesday, he returned to the IronPigs' lineup and went 2 for 4 with two RBIs, a welcome sight for his teammates because Williams has played a significant role in Lehigh Valley's June surge.

"It's just been a hard learning experience, and it doesn't feel good at all," Williams said Wednesday. "It's frustrating missing games and not helping your teammates win, that's the big thing."

A benefit of being at Triple A is sharing a clubhouse with veterans who have been through some of these issues. There are nearly as many veterans in the IronPigs' clubhouse as there are in the Phillies' clubhouse. Williams has leaned on Emmanuel Burriss in particular during these trying times.

"He's had experience with being benched, and he played with the Giants when they won the World Series," Williams said. "[The veterans] help me to understand, open my eyes a little bit. Sometimes you just push it behind, think something is foolish, but other people, they could see it differently."

Hustle and discipline aside, Williams is performing for the IronPigs. His bat has heated up with the weather, and after a slow start his numbers are aligning with his career averages.

Since May 26, Williams has hit .316 with a .904 OPS in 28 games. He has 11 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 17 RBIs in 127 plate appearances. He was hitting .262/.289/.409 through May 25 but is now up to .285/.329/.460. His 28 extra-base hits are tied with Taylor Featherston for the LHV lead.

"Well obviously I'm not playing in 40- or 30-degree weather," Williams said when asked what changed for him. "(In the Rangers' system) I played in Hickory (North Carolina), Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) and Frisco (Texas). This is my first experience ever with cold weather. I've seen snow one time my whole life and that was when I was seven. Had a couple occasions here during a game where it started coming down a little bit and I just thought, 'I'm a long way from home.'"

That he is. But the Galveston, Texas, native has performed all the same in 89 games in the Phillies' system since coming over in the Cole Hamels trade. He's even improved upon a few weaknesses.

As productive as the left-handed Williams was last season, he hit just .210 against lefties. This season, he's hit .264 and already has one more extra-base hit than he had in all of 2015 against lefties.

And even though his walk rate remains low — Williams has 17 walks and 73 strikeouts in 287 plate appearances this season after walking just three times in 100 PAs last summer at Reading — the numbers don't bear out that improvement as much as the eye test has.

"I've been seeing lefties a lot better lately," Williams said. "A lot of them kind of do the same thing to me and that helps. I just want to master, really figure out what I'm trying to do and what they're trying to do to me. I didn't like when [managers] thought I couldn't hit a lefty, and they would call a guy in from the bullpen just to pitch to me. It bothered me, I didn't like that, them thinking it could just take a lefty to get me out. I worked on it, worked on it, and I got better at it, being more patient.

"Breaking balls away, sometimes they try to come in, but usually if they throw me a breaking ball that's a strike, it's a good pitch to hit. There's a couple times you can tip your hat to them for hitting a certain spot, but really, when lefties throw me a breaking ball for a strike, it's a good pitch to hit. Just staying patient and the one that's an inch off, two inches off, just bite your lip and take."

Both the Rangers and Phillies have discussed with Williams the need to walk more. He thinks the free passes will come with time and better pitch recognition, but interestingly, taking more pitches has at times had an adverse affect.

"I know a lot of my strikeouts this year are from takes," Williams said. "I'm aggressive, but I don't feel like I'm too aggressive. I feel like I get runners over, move them in, do my job. I just feel like walks will come. I've always been an aggressive swinger. I do strike out a lot but I make contact a lot, too. It's not like I just go up there and strike out all the time. I work the count."

If Williams keeps his head down and truly learns from the incidents he's had this season, his bat could carry him to South Philly late this summer or in September. And when he gets there, he'll have a chance to wipe away whatever preconceived notions fans may have of him after hearing about the few times he didn't hustle.

"I love the fans, I'm always smiling, I sign autographs, I do whatever I can to interact with the fans, but I've never been — and this is something my dad taught me — I've never been one for people's opinions because everyone's gonna have them," Williams said. "I feel like you can never say the right or wrong thing because somebody's going to find something negative or misinterpret it. I try not to pay attention to it really. But I've got to learn from it."

Best of MLB: Daniel Murphy homers twice to help Nationals sweep Mets

Best of MLB: Daniel Murphy homers twice to help Nationals sweep Mets

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Murphy homered twice, tormenting his former team yet again, and the Washington Nationals completed a three-game sweep of the New York Mets with 4-2 victory Wednesday night.

Max Scherzer (9-5) cruised against New York's sputtering offense, allowing two hits with 10 strikeouts over 7 1/3 innings. He retired 18 in a row before Brandon Nimmo's single in the eighth and finished with at least 10 strikeouts for the fourth straight game.

Murphy homered off Logan Verrett (3-5) in the second for a 1-0 lead and golfed a two-run drive in the eighth. He matched his career high with 14 homers and helped Washington win its fourth in a row.

The Mets went 23 innings without scoring before James Loney's two-run homer in the ninth off Shawn Kelley (see full recap).

Yankees score 6 runs in 9th inning to stun Rangers
NEW YORK -- Brian McCann hit a tying, three-run homer off Sam Dyson, Didi Gregorius capped a six-run ninth inning with his two-run shot and the New York Yankees woke up late to beat the Texas Rangers 9-7 Wednesday night.

Down 7-2 and in danger of falling 10 games behind AL East-leading Baltimore, the Yankees began their comeback when McCann homered off Cesar Ramos in the eighth.

Rob Refsnyder singled off Matt Bush leading off the ninth, Jacoby Ellsbury singled and Dyson (1-2) relieved.

Brett Gardner singled and Refsnyder came home when center fielder Ian Desmond bobbled the ball for an error. After Alex Rodriguez lined out, McCann homered into the right-field bleachers, Starlin Castro walked and Gregorius lined the ball into the right-field seats for his first career game-ending homer.

Luis Cessa (1-0) allowed one run in three innings for his first big league win (see full recap).

Indians blank Braves to extend winning streak to 12
ATLANTA -- Danny Salazar threw seven innings, Lonnie Chisenhall hit his second homer of the series and the Cleveland Indians stretched their winning streak to 12 games by beating the Atlanta Braves 3-0 on Wednesday night.

Cleveland swept its fourth straight series to extend the majors' longest winning streak this season. The Indians began the day leading second-place Kansas City by six games in the AL Central.

The Indians need one more win to match the longest winning streaks in franchise history. They won 13 straight in 1942 and 1951. They had another 12-game streak in 1922.

Jason Kipnis broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single in the fifth.

Salazar (10-3) was dominant, allowing five hits with no walks and eight strikeouts. He lowered the AL's second-best ERA to 2.22 while winning his sixth straight start (see full recap).