Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

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Though they still have the worst record in the majors by 3½ games, the 34-62 Phillies aren't playing like the worst team in baseball right now.

Not from an offensive standpoint, not from a starting pitching standpoint, not from a bullpen standpoint.

The Phils' offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers, their fourth win in five games and sixth in the last 10 (see Instant Replay).

Nick Williams homered again, Howie Kendrick had a very Howie Kendrick-like at-bat with the bases loaded, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the trio of Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Luis Garcia sealed the win.

The Phillies have scored at least five runs in seven straight games, which is something none of their recent division-winning teams did in a single season. It's their longest such streak since May 31-June 7, 2005.

Their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in six of the last eight games.

And the Phils' bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

A lot of things are clicking right now for a team that probably can't play worse than it did in the first half. The Phils' record remains hideous, but there are actually four teams with worse run differentials: the Reds, Blue Jays, Giants and Padres.

"My first year here as a coach was '09, and in no way am I comparing ourselves to that team, but it was reminiscent the way we've been swinging the bats of us coming back and coming from behind and catching up and beating other teams," Pete Mackanin said. "It reminds me to a certain degree."

For much of the season, Mackanin has walked into the Phillies' media room after a loss and said that his hitters aren't living up to their standard. For much of the season, the Phillies have made quick outs and life easy for the opposing pitcher. 

But with Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez back from the DL, with Odubel Herrera hitting .331 since June 1, with Maikel Franco walking as much as he's struck out the last 35 games, and with Williams' power and energy rubbing off on the rest of the team, many different Phillies are playing like they have something to prove.

"Everybody is playing for a job next year," Mackanin said. "Everybody is playing to be part of our future and I think the guys are competing among themselves. It's good to see. Everybody's more aggressive. They're into the games."

The energy added by Williams' arrival on June 30 has been impossible to ignore, though it's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. Is there added energy because he and so many other guys started hitting, or are they hitting because there's a more positive vibe in the clubhouse and dugout?

"I like to do whatever I can to start the momentum or get guys going," Williams said. "If I do something exciting, they're like, 'Oh, he's playing hard.' But everyone's been hitting and everyone's been just playing the game right and just doing all the little things and that's how we've been able to come out with some victories.

"In close spots with the hitting, we've been able to knock a lot of guys in. It's just that hitting's contagious. I always say when one guy does it, why can't the next? That's how I think of it."

The biggest spot in Sunday's game came with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. With the game tied, the Brewers switched pitchers and Kendrick quickly found himself down 0-2 before singling up the middle to score two runs.

Kendrick has missed 60 games this season and it's been frustrating for him because he's been so locked-in when he's played. After picking up two more hits Sunday, he's up to .353 with an .873 OPS. His numbers are rarely sexy because he averages about 10 home runs per season, but a versatile, perennial .290 hitter has value. It's why the Phillies' offseason acquisition of Kendrick made sense and it's why he figures to have some trade value even though Sunday was just his 36th game of the year.

"Not only is he a good hitter but he plays solid defense out there," Mackanin said. "He doesn't have the greatest range but it's not bad. He's average to maybe a tick above average. 

"I'm sure there's a lot of interest in a lot of our guys, (Pat) Neshek, [Kendrick], even (Joaquin) Benoit, (Daniel) Nava. We'll wait and see."

The non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and general manager Matt Klentak expects there to be some movement. The Phils' two best trade chips are Kendrick and Neshek and both had productive weekends. Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to lower his ERA to 1.12. He's allowed runs in just two of 43 appearances.

And Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, going 4 for 10 since returning Friday from a hamstring strain.

"If I were scouting for another organization I'd recommend him," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "I'd put an acquire (label) on him."

We'll soon see what that acquire label nets the Phillies. The return won't be huge, but trading Kendrick will allow the Phils to add another young player with upside and open a spot back up for Aaron Altherr, who could return from the DL as early as Wednesday.

Aaron Altherr (hamstring) closer to returning than 1st anticipated

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Aaron Altherr (hamstring) closer to returning than 1st anticipated

Phillies outfielder Aaron Altherr could be back much sooner than first anticipated.

Altherr suffered a hamstring injury on a double July 14 in Milwaukee. The injury wasn't believed to be serious until Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock told reporters the outfielder would miss three to four weeks with a "mild to medium" hamstring strain earlier this week. However, Pete Mackanin said before Saturday's game that Altherr could return when eligible to come off during next week's series against the Astros. 

Altherr's return could muddle the Phillies' outfield situation with the emergence of rookie Nick Williams. Veteran trade candidates Howie Kendrick and Daniel Nava could be moved to create at-bats for the intriguing trio of Altherr, Williams and Odubel Herrera. If not, both veterans can play the infield or see their roles reduced after Altherr's return.

Altherr has been one of the bright spots in the Phillies' lineup, hitting .288 with 14 homers and 44 RBIs. His injury came at an inopportune time. He was 7 for his last 15 with a homer and three RBIs.

Aaron Altherr to miss 3 to 4 weeks with 'mild to medium' hamstring strain

Aaron Altherr to miss 3 to 4 weeks with 'mild to medium' hamstring strain

Aaron Altherr will be out longer than expected with his hamstring injury. He has a "mild to medium" hamstring strain and will miss three to four weeks, Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock told Philly.com Wednesday.

Altherr suffered the injury on a double July 14 in Milwaukee. The timing was unfortunate because he had been locking back in and could have really lengthened the Phillies lineup with Nick Williams, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera all seeing the ball well.

Altherr has hit .288 with an .898 OPS this season. He has 20 doubles, three triples, 14 home runs and 44 RBIs in his first extended opportunity as an everyday starter. 

It will be interesting to see whether the Phillies use Altherr's injury as a chance to get a look at outfield prospect Dylan Cozens. Cozens is hitting .238/.315/.479 with 22 homers and 59 RBIs this season with Triple A Lehigh Valley. He's been pretty cold of late, hitting just .221 with six homers and 43 strikeouts in 106 plate appearances over his last 25 games.

Had Roman Quinn stayed healthy, this could have been an opportunity for him. But the speedy, oft-injured outfield prospect has been out since May 28 with a ligament injury to his non-throwing elbow. 

In the meantime, the Phillies have used Daniel Nava and Cameron Perkins in left field. Howie Kendrick (oblique) could fill that role soon. He is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment Thursday with Double A Reading.