MLB Notes: Reds stop Cueto from pitching in WBC

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MLB Notes: Reds stop Cueto from pitching in WBC

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Cincinnati Reds have blocked ace Johnny Cueto from pitching for the Dominican Republic in next month's World Baseball Classic.

Cueto strained his right oblique eight pitches into last October's division series against San Francisco. Because he finished the year with an injury, the Reds had the right to block him from playing in the WBC.

"I wanted to pitch for the Dominican but the team said no. It's all right," Cueto said Thursday. "I am going to work to get ready for the season. I was ready to pitch. I'm 100 percent."

Cueto was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 33 starts during the regular season.

"I'm not sure happy is the right word. I'm more relieved." manager Dusty Baker said. "I understand the pressure for the Latin player to pitch for their country. If he was a 10-game winner instead of a 19-game winner, there wouldn't be as much pressure."

The Dominican Republic is in Group C with Puerto Rico, Spain and Venezuela.

"I will be watching the Classic and rooting for the Dominican," Cueto said.

MLB still probing Florida clinic
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Baseball union head Michael Weiner says reporters should refrain from jumping to conclusions about media reports linking players to a Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs.

Starting his annual tour of the 30 spring training camps, Weiner cautioned that Major League Baseball is still investigating Biogenesis of America, a defunct anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, Fla.

"The players understand that what's happening in Miami at this point remains to be seen in terms of fairness and judging things on the evidence," Weiner said Thursday. "But there is a lot of talk in the clubhouse about where we should be on the joint drug program, and that's a good thing."

After his one-hour session with the Mets, Weiner also discussed the agreement with management last month to extend blood testing for human growth hormone into the regular season. HGH testing began last year but was limited to spring training.

As part of the changes to the joint drug agreement, the World Anti-Doping Agency laboratory in Laval, Quebec, will keep records of each player, including his baseline ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone (see full story).

Granderson, Gardener could flop OF spots
TAMPA, Fla. -- Yankees outfielders Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner could be switching positions.

Granderson worked out in left field Thursday and the speedy Gardner switched to center.

"I think it has a chance to help us a little bit, but I'm not really sure," manager Joe Girardi said. "That's why I've said from the beginning that I'm going to toy with it. I'm not saying today that this is what it's going to be opening day."

Girardi plans to play the pair together in upcoming spring training games.

"See if we like it," Girardi said. "If we do, we'll stay with it. If we don't, we won't."

Granderson also will get some playing time in center.

"I'd loved to play center. That's what I've been playing. At the same time, I want to play in general," Granderson said. "No matter where that happens to be, that's where I want to be at. You never know unless you try things out. We don't know what the best way is going to be" (see full story).

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Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

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Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup Tuesday night after being hit in the knee by a Jeremy Hellickson pitch on Memorial Day.

Big break for the Phils considering Harper has hit .346 against them with three doubles, 11 home runs, 23 RBIs and 21 walks in his last 104 plate appearances against them.

It's an equally big break for Aaron Nola, against whom Harper is 6 for 10 with two homers (see game notes).

For the Phillies, Ryan Howard gets the start at first base against another right-hander, Washington's Joe Ross. Phillies fans are clamoring for more playing time for Tommy Joseph, but starting Howard against Ross does make some sense given how much better lefties have been against him (.295 BA) than righties (.209). Ross throws a ton of sinkers and sliders which make it tough on same-handed hitters.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Cameron Rupp, C
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Tyler Goeddel, LF
7. David Lough, RF
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Daniel Murphy, 2B
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
5. Clint Robinson, LF
6. Anthony Rendon, 3B
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Danny Espinosa, SS
9. Joe Ross, P

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Calling on Aaron Nola to stop 4-game skid

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Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Calling on Aaron Nola to stop 4-game skid

Phillies (26-25) vs. Nationals (31-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies are in a rut, an expected rut given their recent schedule.

On Tuesday, they'll try to get back on track behind the young right-hander who's emerging as their stopper.

Let's take a look at the second of their 10-game homestand:

1. Not measuring up
The Phillies have lost six of their last seven games and are riding their first four-game losing streak since they started the year 0-4. Prior to last week, they'd done a decent job this season of avoiding lengthy skids, but this is definitely the toughest stretch they've faced in 2016.

Over these seven games, the Phils have been outscored 34-21 by the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals, three veteran teams filled with power. Two of the games have been decided by one run and the Phillies lost both after holding late leads. 

At 14-5, the Phils still have far and away the majors' best record in one-run games, but this is what regression looks like. Hector Neris wasn't going to go through a full season without a hiccup. And the best example of how unsustainably productive he's been was that even after allowing three runs in just two-thirds of an inning, Neris' ERA is still 2.20. It's difficult for a reliever to get hit around and still have that low an ERA, especially this early in the season.

If the Phillies lose again tonight, they'll be right at .500 for the first time since they were 10-10. They've spent the last 33 days of the season with a winning record.

2. Nola gets the nod
Jeremy Hellickson turned in his second straight excellent outing against the Nationals on Memorial Day and Aaron Nola looks to do the same.

Nola, like Hellickson, struggled the first time he faced Washington this season, allowing seven earned runs in five innings.

Nola, like Hellickson, rebounded the next time he faced the Nats — both allowed two hits over seven shutout innings in their second start against Washington.

Now Nola looks to build upon that success the way Hellickson did Monday night, when he lowered his own ERA to 3.68 by allowing a run on three hits over seven innings.

Nola is 4-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 10 starts this season. He's struck out 70, walked 12 and allowed five home runs in 66 innings. His opponents have hit .200.

Nola has missed more bats and struck out more batters at the major-league level than anyone expected. His control has been as advertised — he's walked just 31 batters in 143⅔ career innings. This season, he's cut his home run rate in half. He allowed 11 in 77⅔ innings as a rookie.

Nola continues to lead the National League with 242 called strikes, 17 more than Tanner Roark, who is second. That number speaks to the effectiveness of Nola's knee-buckling curveball, which has generated 65 swings-and-misses, second-most in the majors to Jose Fernandez's 77. (Jerad Eickhoff is third in the NL with 33.)

Current Nationals are 19 for 65 (.292) against Nola with two doubles, a triple, two homers and 18 strikeouts. Bryce Harper, who left Monday's game in the seventh inning after being hit by a pitch on the knee, is 6 for 10 with two of those home runs. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon have also taken Nola deep.

3. Harper out?
Harper left the game in the seventh with what was diagnosed a right knee contusion. It would obviously be a huge relief for the Phillies if he's out of the lineup Tuesday, especially considering how he's hit lately at Citizens Bank Park.

Harper brought into Monday's game a streak of six straight games with a home run at Citizens Bank Park, tying the longest home run streak in MLB history for any player at a visiting stadium. 

Harper, who hit .330 last season, won an MVP and led the NL in practically every meaningful offensive category, has been in a lengthy slump. Over his last 32 games, he's hit .183 with just five extra-base hits in 133 plate appearances. Teams have stopped pitching to him. Harper has 35 walks over that span, nine intentional.

But Harper is obviously a threat any time he comes to the plate, and he's hit pretty much any pitcher the Phillies have thrown at him the last two years. In 104 plate appearances against them since the start of 2015, Harper has hit .346 with three doubles, 11 homers, 23 RBIs, 21 walks and 23 strikeouts.

4. Another crack at Ross
Nationals right-hander Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52) makes his 10th start of the season tonight against the Phils. He shut them down on April 15 in his second start, pitching 7⅔ shutout innings in his best outing of the year.

Ross has allowed one run or fewer in five of nine starts and two earned runs or fewer in seven of nine. He's given up more than three earned runs just once all season, on May 10 against the Tigers.

The younger brother of Padres opening-day starter Tyson Ross, Joe is mostly a three-pitch pitcher who throws a lot of sinkers and sliders. When he faced the Phillies earlier this season he threw 55 sinkers, 38 sliders and 14 changeups. 

Like his brother, Joe Ross loves the slider with two strikes, throwing it 73 percent of the time this season with two strikes on a right-handed hitter. His opponents this year are 16 for 92 (.174) against the slider with four home runs and 37 strikeouts.

Lefties (.295 BA, .757 OPS) have hit him much better than righties (.209, .598). Might that mean another start for Ryan Howard?

5. This and that
• Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 21 over his last six starts and is down to .222 on the season.

• Daniel Murphy had three more hits and drove in three runs against the Phillies last night. He's a .313/.363/.487 career hitter against them in 457 plate appearances. Playing in the NL East the last eight seasons, Murphy has hit lower than .293 just once vs. the Phils.

• Freddy Galvis, who homered off Roark on Monday, has hit well at home this season with a .284 batting average and .779 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Galvis is 12 for 33 (.364) over his last eight games overall with four doubles, a triple and a homer.

• Jonathan Papelbon has faced the Phillies six times since they traded him to the Nationals last summer. In those six games, he's allowed nine runs (six earned) and put 13 men on base. The Phils have seven hits (five doubles) against him in 2⅔ innings this season.

Pete Mackanin on deciding Ryan Howard's playing time: 'I think about it all the time'

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Pete Mackanin on deciding Ryan Howard's playing time: 'I think about it all the time'

A day after he made comments in Chicago that alluded to the trimming of Ryan Howard’s playing time against right-handed pitchers, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin sat at his desk, surrounded by reporters, and was pressed for 10 minutes on the issue of his declining, expensive and struggling first baseman and franchise icon.

Howard, of course, was penciled into the lineup in the cleanup spot against righty Tanner Roark for Monday’s 4-3 loss to the visiting Washington Nationals (see game recap).

A question of was barely out of a reporter’s mouth when Mackanin quickly interjected a “hell yes.”

It’s the hardest decision - what to do with the struggling Howard - he’s had to make in his brief time managing the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I think about it all the time,” Mackanin said.

“That’s the hard part of this job. It’s not just running the game, it’s handling the players.”

For now, Mackanin said, he hasn’t felt the need to talk to Howard about it. Howard, who sat Sunday for the second time in eight days against a righty, said Sunday he was unaware his manager was intending on reducing his playing time against righties (see story).

Once a platoon situation at first base, it appears the Phillies are going to take a longer look at rookie Tommy Joseph against right-handed pitchers in the near future.

“If I was going to sit (Howard) on the bench and he wasn’t going to play anymore, I’d have that conversation,” Mackanin said. “I think what I said was pretty obvious.”

“I didn’t say I was going to bench Howard.”

He didn’t Monday. Howard had good numbers against Roark, something he didn’t have against Sunday’s starter for the Cubs, John Lackey. So it looks like Mackanin’s decision will be based on matchups.

In his second at-bat Monday, a second straight strikeout on the night and 12th in his last 22 at-bats, Howard was way late on a 93-mph fastball on the outer half of the plate.

But he looked much better in his final two at-bats of the night.

In the bottom of the sixth, he drove a Roark changeup to the warning track deep in right-center, but Ben Revere closed quickly and made the catch.

In his last at-bat, after Maikel Franco led off the ninth inning with a double, Howard jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Jonathan Papelbon and drove a double to the gap in left-centerfield, scoring Franco and putting the tying run in scoring position with no outs.

Those two swings were the ones Mackanin said Monday afternoon he “knew” were there. He later corrected himself and said it was more of a situation of “hope.”

Howard went 1 for 4 on the night. His May average is now .106.

“He needed to come through with a big hit and that was a huge hit, put the tying run at second base,” Mackanin said. “It was good to see.”

The Phillies are slated to face a righty in their next six games before facing Jon Lester and the Cubs at home next Monday. Joseph, who is hitting .278 with three home runs in his first 36 Major League at-bats, figures to get the start in the majority of those.

It’s a decision Mackanin says he’s going to make on a day-by-day basis.

He was asked if the front office, which is also in a tough spot and may have to do something soon, gave him any input on what to do.

“They don’t tell me who to play and when to play them,” Mackanin said. “I know that they want me to mix in Joseph against right-handers so that he doesn’t stagnate. That’s pretty much all I go by right now.”

A suggestion from upstairs isn’t unprecedented. It has already happened before during the young 2016 season.

“They asked me to - as bad as (Tyler) Goeddel looked early in the season - they asked me if I could try to mix him in a little more,” Mackanin said. “I said sure. I did, and he started hitting better. So now he’s playing more. Here we go, if you want to play more than you gotta hit.

“There’s nothing set in stone.”