Phils fight through obstacles in strong first half

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Phils fight through obstacles in strong first half

The story of the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies doesn't take too many literary devices. There are no underlying themes, sub-plots and nearly three-quarters through the tale, there doesn't seem to be an unexpected twist looming.

At least not yet anyway.

The way it's shaping up 91 games into the season, the Phillies appear destined to be on the road for their second World Series title in the last four years.

How did we get here? It's elementary.

"When you think of us, especially this half, our pitching definitely jumps out at you," manager Charlie Manuel said after his team took two of three from the second-place Atlanta Braves to improve to a major-league best 57-37.

The Phillies record is so good that they can merely play .500 ball over the final 71 games and they will finish with 92 wins. If they keep winning at their current rate, the Phillies will win 102, which is one more than the 1976 and 1977 teams that set the franchise record.

Of course when the '76 and '77 teams won 101 games, they did it with an offense that led the league in homers, runs, batting average, slugging, etc., etc. Those teams pitched a little bit, too, with Steve Carlton winning 20 in 1976 and 23 more for the Cy Young Award in 1977.

Conversely, the 2011 Phillies pitch a lot, but dont really hit that much. Headed into the All-Star break, the Phillies are seventh in runs, ninth in homers and 10th in batting average.

Still, even with the mediocre offense, the Phillies are on the cusp of running away from the rest of National League. Of course the injuries haven't helped much, either. After all, Chase Utley has missed 50 games, yet still is one of two players batting better than .275.

At the same time, All-Stars Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco have missed chunks of time, while others like Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez and Ben Francisco have battled streakiness, ineffectiveness and opposing pitching corps in tune with the technology available to them. These days a hitter cant flinch or hiccup without it going onto a jump drive in some video room.

Still, when the Phillies get healthy and are able to put their lineup back together, Manuel says he expects to see the hits fall.

"You look to the second half, and I expect us to score more runs, especially if we get our team back and get healthy," Manuel said. "When Victorino went into the five-hole he started to show some consistency. He's a switch hitter, and he's got some power, and if we can get Polly well, he's a .300 hitter. And we've got Utley now, so there's no reason why we can't score more runs."

Meanwhile, others may wonder if Manuel is driving his pitching too hard considering the starting corps has led the world in innings pitched, while the bullpen has had the least amount of work. Plus, both groups have also shared in the injuries. Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton have posted incomplete seasons that have virtually been washouts.

In the 'pen, Brad Lidge hasn't thrown a pitch yet this season and there is some speculation that Jose Contreras might have thrown his last. Ryan Madson has also spent some time on the disabled list, which has thrust rookie Michael Stutes and inexperienced lefty Antonio Bastardo into major roles at the back of the bullpen.

In other words, Manuel's starters have gobbled up the innings because they have had to this season.

"The value in that is it allows our bullpen to get proper rest," Manuel said. "If you notice, our guys in the bullpen pretty much keep their roles that way. We don't have to go out of sync and do something as far as pitching somebody too long in a game or too often. They get their proper rest, and we can keep them organized that way."

Of course with the way Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay have pitched, not even Manuel can wrestle the ball away.

"Being able to go out and pitch seven, eight, nine innings, if you want to be good in this game, that's what you have to do," Hamels said. "I've been able to do that numerous times and I've been able to get into that groove. That's where I'm able to get comfortable, and I like the feeling. That's something where I want to stay."

In a staff filled with aces, Hamels has stood out on the stat sheet. He has put together an 11-4 record and 2.32 ERA that should garner him some first-place Cy Young votes, but it's easy to see how Hamels could have been better.

In June he went three straight starts without a win, mostly because his teammates gave him just three runs of support in all of those games. Plus, the Phillies have scored just four runs combined in all four of Hamels' losses and 11 runs in his four no-decisions.

Sure, Halladay has the innings and the complete games, Lee has the shutouts, but Hamels' consistency has been uncanny.
E-mail John R. Finger at jfinger@comcastsportsnet.com
Related: Phils get things started for NL in All-Star Game win Phillies notes: Halladay may still get a week off

Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

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Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

It seems like Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has decided pulling Odubel Herrera in the seventh inning of a tied game on Monday is enough punishment for failing to run out a ground ball.

The centerfielder will be back in his customary leadoff spot when the Phillies take on Justin Verlander and the Tigers tonight at Comerica Park (see game notes).

Much of the talk surrounding the Phillies in the last 24 hours has centered on Herrera after Mackanin yanked him from the game Monday (see story). After all, Herrera's .335 batting average leads an offense-starved team that averages just 3.24 runs per game, second-worst in the majors. Before he was pulled on Monday, Herrera was 3 for 4 with an RBI and had a 15-pitch at-bat against starter Mike Pelfrey to start the game.

Tommy Joseph will start again at first base after clobbering his second homer of the season on Monday. Despite another night of immense struggles (see story), Ryan Howard is again in the lineup as the designated hitter in the American League park.

The only change to to the lineup from Monday see Carlos Ruiz starting behind the plate to catch Jeremy Hellickson.

Star outfielder Justin Upton will sit again for Detroit as he nurses a quad injury. Mike Aviles will start in his place in left.

Both teams' lineups can be found below.

Phillies
1. Odubel Herrera CF
2. Freddy Galvis SS
3. Maikel Franco 3B
4. Tommy Joseph 1B
5. Ryan Howard DH
6. Carlos Ruiz C
7. Cesar Hernandez 2B
8. Tyler Goedell LF
9. Peter Bourjos RF

Tigers
1. Ian Kinsler 2B
2. J.D. Martinez RF
3. Miguel Cabrera 1B
4. Victor Martinez RF
5. Nick Castellanos 3B
6. Cameron Maybin CF
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
8. Mike Aviles LF
9. Jose Iglesias SS 

Jackie Robinson's historic Dodgers contract on display in Philadelphia

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Jackie Robinson's historic Dodgers contract on display in Philadelphia

A piece of modern baseball history will be on display in Philadelphia for the next couple of weeks.

The original contract Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 that allowed him to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball will be featured at the National Constitution Center from May 26 until June 5.

Mikalai Kontilia, CEO of Collectors Cafe, the company loaning the contract to the Constitution Center, brought both the Dodgers' document and the contract Robinson signed with the minor league Montreal Royals in October 1945 to The Comcast Network's Breakfast on Broad show on Tuesday morning.

"What's amazing is, these contracts, finally, after 60-some odd years, have been unearthed, discovered and the American people can finally see the Jackie Robinson contracts," Kontilia said.

The Dodgers' contract plays an important role in American history, and not just in terms of sport. Many people point to then-Dodgers owner Branch Rickey's signing Robinson as a starting point in the American civil rights movement.

Kontilia said a historic documentarian appraised the contracts at a value of $36 million.

For more on the contracts, check out the segment from Breakfast on Broad.

Photo credit of Robinson signing contract: DodgersNation.com.

Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

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Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

Phillies (25-20) at Tigers (22-22)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies actually lost a one-run game. 

Their six-game road trip started off with a 5-4 loss Monday night — which makes them 14-4 in one-run games — against a Tigers lineup that showed just how much power it has. Miguel Cabrera homered twice, and J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos added solo shots of their own. It was an all-around rough night for Phillies pitchers, but they have a chance to even the series tonight at Comerica Park.

Let's take a look at the matchup:

1. Keep 'em in the park
Comerica Park favors pitchers more than hitters, but the Tigers and Phillies made it look small on Monday, hitting a combined six home runs. Oddly enough, all were solo shots.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes tonight for more success than Vince Velasquez had Monday. Hellickson struggled with the home run ball earlier in the year, allowing nine in his first seven starts. He didn't allow one in either of his last two starts, but the Marlins and Reds aren't as loaded offensively as the Tigers.

Detroit has clicked at the plate over the last week, belting 17 home runs over its last six games. J.D. Martinez has three of them and Cabrera has five. With those two batting second and third, Hellickson needs to be sharp in the first inning. 

The opening frame has been a problem for Hellickson all season — his opponents have hit .289 with an .883 OPS, six doubles and a homer. His first-inning ERA is 7.00 this season and 5.75 over the last two.

2. Changes from Hellickson
He enters 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA. Over his last two starts, Hellickson's given up just two earned runs in 13 innings, putting 11 men on base and striking out 13. He's faced 57 batters since last allowing a home run for his longest homerless streak of the season.

What's been the biggest difference for Hellickson in his last two starts? He's turned to his changeup, his best pitch, more often with two strikes. In his first seven outings, Hellickson threw the changeup 18 percent of the time with two strikes. His last two starts, he's thrown it 48 percent of the time with two strikes. It's completely fooled the opposition, which is 0 for 17 with 11 strikeouts against Hellickson's changeup over that span.

Hellickson has by far the highest swing-and-miss rate of changeups in all of baseball with 57 in 184 pitches (31 percent).

Look for Hellickson to continue utilizing that pitch tonight. Here are some of the Tigers' numbers this season against right-handed changeups:

Cabrera: 1 for 11
Castellanos: 1 for 10
Justin Upton: 1 for 7
J.D. Martinez: 0 for 7

Current Tigers are 30 for 95 (.316) lifetime against Hellickson. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has done the most damage, going 8 for 25 with three doubles, three homers and five walks. Cabrera is 4 for 11 with a homer. Upton is 5 for 13 with two doubles and two homers, but he's out again tonight with a tight quad.

3. Not the same Verlander
Now 33, Justin Verlander is not the same fireballer he was in his prime. In 2011, the year he won AL Cy Young and MVP, his fastball averaged 95 mph. This season, the pitch has averaged a career-low 92.1. 

Here's a look at the difference for Verlander's pitches the last three seasons compared to his peak of 2009 to 2012:

2009-12
Fastball: .254 opponents' batting average
Curveball: .152
Changeup: .196
Slider: .209

2014-present
Fastball: .263
Curveball: .248
Changeup: .275
Slider: .227

His pitches just haven't had the same life and bite as they once did. We've seen this happen to a number of former aces over the last few seasons: Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay. When the decline happens, it happens fast, especially for guys who pitch so many innings every year. It's not as drastic for some as it is for others. King Felix has been able to remain effective despite diminished velocity by mastering his offspeed pitches. That's something Lincecum, Cain and Sabathia have been unable to do.

Verlander is sort of in between. Since the start of 2014, he's 23-24 with a 4.16 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 61 starts. He hasn't been horrible but hasn't been great either.

This season, Verlander is 3-4 with a 4.58 ERA. He's struck out 60 and walked 20 in 57 innings. He's on a roll entering tonight's game, having allowed just four runs over his last 22⅓ innings with 27 strikeouts.

Current Phillies have only 34 career at-bats against Verlander and 18 belong to David Lough. Ryan Howard and Andres Blanco are 0 for 3, Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 2 and Peter Bourjos is 1 for 8.

4. Franco breaking out?
Maikel Franco has had back-to-back multi-hit games for the first time since April 22-23, when he hit three home runs and drove in seven in the first two games of a series in Milwaukee.

Is he finally breaking out of his lengthy slump? Every time over the last few weeks that it's looked like it, he's followed with a few hitless games. 

Franco does appear to be seeing the ball better, though. He's walked just 11 times all season but four have come in his last seven games. In his last five, he's reached base nine times in 19 plate appearances with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• Odubel Herrera, who was pulled from Monday's game for not hustling out a groundball, has followed an 0-for-11 skid by going 5 for 7 in his last two games. He's batting .335, and his .901 OPS is 10th among all NL outfielders, ahead of guys like Starling Marte, Hunter Pence, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Gonzalez.

• Herrera's five errors lead all MLB centerfielders. Nobody else has more than two.

• Colton Murray's soaking up three innings last night allowed David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez to rest despite Velasquez's recording just 12 outs. Hernandez has had two full days off. Getting these guys some rest will be crucial moving forward. Neris is on pace for 86 appearances, Gomez 83 and Hernandez 72. Last season, only one reliever in the majors (St. Louis' Kevin Siegrist) had 80-plus appearances.

• Tommy Joseph entered Monday 0 for 7 with four strikeouts against right-handed pitching, but he had a double and a homer off Mike Pelfrey. 

• Ryan Howard is 4 for 52 (.077) with 22 strikeouts over his last 18 games. His .156 batting average ranks last among 180 qualifying major-leaguers and his .226 OBP is 177th.