5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5. Playoffs!

2013 came and went, and not one of the big four managed to reach their respective sport’s postseason. In fact, we have to go all the way back to May of 2012 when the Flyers and 76ers both advanced to the quarterfinals.

Philadelphia did have some postseason representation in 2013. La Salle’s men’s basketball team enjoyed a memorable run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Merion Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open. Still, those experiences don’t unite the city in quite the same way.

Thankfully, the New Year is going to get started right, with the Eagles hosting an NFL playoff game this Saturday. The Flyers have turned their season around as well, and currently appear on track to make their postseason return as well. Who knows, the Phillies could even steal a Wild Card this summer.

The point is, Philly sports have enjoyed a marked turnaround compared to where we were even six short months ago. Don’t take that for granted.

4. Jesse Biddle / Maikel Franco

The Phillies figure to go into 2014 with one of if not THE oldest roster in Major League Baseball. Nobody is expecting much from the aging core that helped produce the city’s last major championship in 2008. Some would laugh at the mere suggestion they could sneak into the playoffs.

Admittedly, there’s a decent chance we’ll have to slog through another summer of meaningless baseball from a franchise spinning its wheels. Thankfully though, there is some help on the way. A pair of quality prospects are looming in the minors, both of whom could potentially find their way to the big-league roster sometime in 2014.

For Maikel Franco, a September call-up at least seems likely as long as his stroke is anything like it was in 2013. The 21-year-old third baseman swatted 31 home runs between Clearwater and Reading last season with a .320 batting average, earning MiLB’s Breakout Prospect of the Year honors. He should be at Triple-A Lehigh Valley by summer, if he doesn’t start the season there.

Jesse Biddle’s ascension to the show might not be much closer, but he’ll be another name to watch this year. The 21-year-old Philly native didn’t have a great 2013 at Reading with a 5-14 record and 3.64 ERA, but it turns out the lefty was pitching through various maladies, including plantar fasciitis and whooping cough. With an offseason of rest, the 2010 first-round pick should return to form in the new year.

Biddle will probably begin the year at Triple A as well, and both he and Maikel are long-shots to make meaningful contributions to the Phillies this year. Both young men have bright futures ahead though, and there’s a good chance fans could get their first glimpse of one or both of them this summer.

3. Steve Mason

Ilya Bryzgalov had his moments when he was in Philadelphia, but it rarely felt like he stole victories from the jaws of defeat. Since the Flyers acquired Steve Mason at April’s deadline, the new guy has frequently put the club on his back.

The orange and black acquired Mason from the Columbus Blue Jackets for the discount price of Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, though for good reason. Since winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in ’08, the 25-year-old’s numbers plummeted every season until last when Sergei Bobrovsky finally replaced him between the pipes.

Mason’s fortunes began turning around immediately upon his arrival. Hell, he was the only reason the Flyers won any games at all during the early portion of this season's schedule, as the offense struggled mightily to light the lamp more than once or twice per game.

The scoring has improved, and so too has Mason’s record in net. Since getting off to a 1-5-0 start in goal, the lefty’s record has improved to an incredible 17-4-4 to go with a solid .922 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. They haven’t all been easy, either.  Mase has frequently stood on his head to bail out his mates.

With the Flyers rising in the standings and looking like a surefire playoff team again, it feels good to have a promising, young netminder in the crease. Who knows how deep they could run if Mason gets hot at the right time of the year.

2. 2014 NBA Draft and Offseason

Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two forward. That seemed to be Sam Hinkie’s philosophy when he took over as 76ers general manager in May, as he quickly engineered a draft-day trade that sent the franchise’s best player packing.

Jrue Holiday was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to sixth-overall pick Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected first-round pick in 2014. The move guaranteed two things: first, that the Sixers would be so awful as a result, they would have an excellent shot at landing the No. 1 pick with their own ping-pong ball. Second, they would likely have two lottery picks in that draft.

The Sixers’ future already looks brighter than most thought. After a hot start, the club is well on its way to tanking, but exciting 2013 first-round pick Michael Carter-Williams has already made fans forget about Holiday.

With some quality pieces already in place, Hinkie will have an opportunity to make a big splash next offseason. Besides a pair of first-round picks, the Sixers are way under the salary cap, so they should be players in free agency. Plus, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young may be tradeable assets that land more picks and pieces for the future.

Right now, the Sixers blow, and that’s unfortunate. Come this summer though, they are going to be a franchise to watch as Hinkie’s blueprint continues to unfold.

1. The Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles’ rebuilding process is way ahead of schedule. In a season where most fans and experts predicted 6-8 wins, the Birds won 10 and a division title. They unearthed a franchise quarterback almost everybody had overlooked at some point, and successfully transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 faster than expected.

We’ll find out just how good the Birds are right now in a matter of days. They may still be a piece or two away from the Super Bowl, but they’re in the playoffs. Anything can happen.

That’s not even the best part. The way the landscape looks at the beginning of 2014, the Eagles are poised to be contenders for a long time.

Recent drafts have produced quality contributors and budding stars all over the roster. The class of 2012 really came into its own this season, with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin key pieces of a defensive turnaround, while ‘13’s class received promising campaigns from Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.

Some of the game’s brightest stars are in their primes right now, such as NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy (25), DeSean Jackson (27), Jason Kelce (26) and Connor Barwin (27).

And, of course, there’s Nick Foles. Only into his second season, the 24-year-old still has much to prove,  but it certainly appears the Eagles have found their franchise quarterback. It’s tough to win the Super Bowl without stability under center, something the organization may have unexpectedly walked into for the next decade with Foles.

Even the head coach is just getting started. The job Chip Kelly did of turning this team around in one season is amazing. Just imagine what he could do in year two.

No matter what the Eagles do in the playoffs this year, they only stand to improve with another offseason. Add a quality free agent or two and another solid draft, and Philadelphia could become an NFL powerhouse again in no time—if they aren’t already.

The Eagles are three wins away from the Super Bowl in 2014. Considering where they were last year at this time, you can’t ask for much more than that.

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jerad Eickhoff pitched seven innings of one-run ball, but still came away with a loss as the Phillies were shut out, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.

Giancarlo Stanton drove in the Marlins’ first two runs with a single and a double.

Stanton gave the Marlins a 1-0 lead with a two-out base hit to right field against Eickhoff in the sixth inning. Stanton’s groundball hit rolled through the second base area, which had been vacated by the shift.

The Marlins blew the game open with four runs against the Phillies’ bullpen in the eighth.

The Phillies are 4-8 since the All-Star break and 46-56 overall.

Starting pithing report
Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight.

Miami manager Don Mattingly pulled Tom Koehler after the right-hander pitched six shutout innings and had allowed just three hits. Koehler walked one, struck out five and threw just 73 pitches. He exited with a 1-0 lead.

Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in a win over the Phillies last week.

Bullpen report 
Andrew Bailey was charged with three runs in the eighth.

Mike Dunn, David Phelps and Nick Wittgren completed the shutout for the Marlins. 

At the plate
The Phillies had just four hits, all singles, and struck out 10 times. They were 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and are 1 for 13 the last two nights.

Stanton had been just 3 for 35 against the Phils this season before his shift-beating RBI hit in the sixth. He hit the ball much harder in the eighth inning when he clouted an RBI double to right-center against Bailey.

Adeiny Hechavarria padded the Marlins’ lead with a two-run single in their four-run eighth inning.

Ichiro Suzuki’s eighth-inning single left him three hits shy of 3,000 in his big-league career.

Health check
Rightfielder Peter Bourjos injured his right shoulder making a catch against the wall in the first inning and left the game (see story).

Minor matters
Ranger Suarez, a 20-year-old left-hander from Venezuela, pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for the Phillies’ Single A Williamsport club on Tuesday night.

Up next
The series concludes on Wednesday afternoon. Zach Eflin (3-3, 3.40) pitches against Miami lefty Adam Conley (6-5, 3.58).

Peter Bourjos exits game with jammed right shoulder

Peter Bourjos exits game with jammed right shoulder

Updated: 10:55 p.m.

MIAMI — Phillies outfielder and trade candidate Peter Bourjos left Tuesday night’s game after running hard into the right field wall in the bottom of the first inning.

Bourjos had an X-ray, which was negative, and was diagnosed with a jammed right shoulder. It's unclear how long he will be out, but it seems likely he will miss several days.

"I just kind of jammed it into the wall and we'll see how it feels in the morning," Bourjos said after the Phillies were shut out, 5-0, by Miami (see Instant Replay). "There was no fracture or anything so that's good news. Hopefully it's not too long. It's just more sore and stiff right now. I think if I get a few days out, hopefully it's doing better." 

Bourjos suffered the injury while making a nice running catch on a leadoff shot to the gap by Miami's Ichiro Suzuki, who entered the game just four hits shy of 3,000.

Bourjos hit his right shoulder against the wall as he made the catch and briefly went to his knees. He left the game in the second inning and was replaced by Jimmy Paredes.

It's unclear how the injury will affect Bourjos' status as a trade candidate. The injury comes less than a week before the trade deadline. Bourjos could be attractive to teams looking for an extra outfielder and moving him would open a spot for Aaron Altherr, who could come off the disabled list as soon as Thursday.

Bourjos raised his trade stock by hitting .402 (37 for 92) with a 1.086 OPS from June 6 to the All-Star break. He has since tailed off and was hitting .136 in 11 games after the All-Star break entering Tuesday night.

Despite the struggles, Bourjos remains a top defender, as evidenced by the running catch he made on Suzuki that resulted in his leaving Tuesday night’s game.

J.P. Crawford knocking on MLB's door after overcoming slow Triple A start

J.P. Crawford knocking on MLB's door after overcoming slow Triple A start

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — After a slow start at Triple A, J.P. Crawford is once again showing everybody why he's not only the top prospect in the Phillies organization, but also one of the top prospects in all of baseball.

Crawford's average was still hovering around or below .200 one full month into his promotion, and that was considered a sign of improvement. Then the 21-year-old shortstop got hot for real, batting .333 with seven multi-hit games during the month of July. His power has been coming around, too, socking all three of his home runs for Lehigh Valley over that span.

It probably was only a matter of time until Crawford's bat came alive. In fact, never before had he experienced such a deep, prolonged slump.

"It was tough," Crawford said Tuesday. "It was the first time I ever went through something like that, but thankfully I have good teammates to pick me up and keep me thinking positive. I just tried to stay within myself and I got out of it."

IronPigs manager Dave Brundage was one of the first to point out Crawford had never struggled to quite that extent, observing that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing that it happened either. Crawford agreed, adding that it's better to get the unpleasant yet inevitable experience out of the way now, before his highly anticipated arrival in the major leagues.

"I definitely would rather have it here than if I make it up there," said Crawford, notably not taking his eventual promotion to the Phillies for granted. "I'd rather learn from it now than suffer from it later."

Crawford entered Tuesday's IronPigs doubleheader batting .267 with a .341 on-base percentage and .356 slugging since his May 20 call-up. That's beginning to approach the numbers from his stint at Double A Reading, where he hit .265 with a .367 OBP and .416 slugging across parts of 2015-16.

As for what's changed, Crawford made some tweaks to his approach that helped him break out. Most of all, he's simply getting back to what made him successful in the first place.

"Just trying to stay within myself, as far as not trying to get three hits in one at-bat," Crawford said. "Recently been trying to put the ball hard back up the middle and it's been working.

"I'm just using less of my body and focused on using my hands more, like I'm used to, not thinking too much at the plate, staying confident in myself and just doing me."

Brundage suggests the reasons behind Crawford's initial struggles, aside from the challenge in making the jump to the next level, may have been a matter of circumstance for the left-handed batter.

"He had a little tough luck early on and was kind of getting his feet wet, just a lack of experience at this level," Brundage said. "I think he's getting himself more comfortable, he's feeling more comfortable with the bat, just trying to make some adjustments along the way and they seem to be working.

"He's had much better at-bats. That, and we haven't faced — not that he can't hit left-handers, because he's done a better job against lefties — but there for a run I think we faced nine out of 11 starters were left-handed against us, so that makes it a little bit tougher when you're trying to gain some experience, when you're trying to make it here at Triple A."

There's little doubt Crawford will get his first taste of the majors with the Phillies come September when the roster expands, if not sooner. He's now demonstrated he can hit at every level of the minors. There's only one step left to take, and that's up to the big leagues.

But Crawford isn't getting ahead of himself. He knows he's knocking on the door. He also understands what the expectations are once he gets there, and that there's a lot more hard work ahead.

"I mean, it's cool, but I'm trying not to think about it," Crawford said of an impending promotion. "I try to just go about my business, day by day, try to find a way to get better before the game and try to win the game that night."