Gordie Jones

Aaron Altherr forcing Phillies to reconsider master plan

Aaron Altherr forcing Phillies to reconsider master plan

His stroke is short and quick now, his return to prominence with the Phillies no less rapid.

Aaron Altherr, the guy who had to rethink his approach at the plate this spring, has forced the organization to reconsider its master plan.

An intriguing prospect in 2015 and injured afterthought last season, the young outfielder enters Monday's series finale against the Braves slashing .290/.364/.556. He leads the team in OPS (.920) and is tied with Tommy Joseph for the lead in homers with 16 while driving in 47 runs.

All that has come in 83 games, just over half a season. No reason to get too excited yet. But enough to give everyone something to think about.

On Saturday night, manager Pete Mackanin sat in his office before a game against Atlanta and talked not only about the 26-year-old Altherr but another outfielder, rookie Nick Williams, who was called up from Lehigh Valley on June 30. How Altherr has “really responded well” this season, and how the .277-hitting Williams is “really holding his own.”

“Those two guys in themselves is a real bonus,” Mackanin said, “just to get a look at them to see if they can fit in here. I’m not saying it’s a done deal (that they will be regulars), but it really bodes well.”

Lately, Mackanin has been playing Altherr and Williams at the corner spots with the enigmatic Odubel Herrera, and things will likely stay that way most of the rest of the season. Certainly, Daniel Nava will see some daylight when he comes off the disabled list, and maybe a call-up like Dylan Cozens or Roman Quinn will get a look in September.

But that figures to be the most frequent configuration and might turn out to be the long-term solution in the outfield as well.

Fine with Altherr, who at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds is swift enough to play any of the three spots.

“We know he’s a good defender,” Mackanin said. “We know he can run. He’s got a good arm. Hitting is the last ingredient.”

That came around after some work in spring training with hitting coach Matt Stairs, who encouraged Altherr to lower his hands, allowing him to get his bat through the strike zone more quickly.

Almost immediately, Altherr said, “I felt more relaxed and a lot quicker to the ball.”

That he homered in his first simulated game only reinforced the idea that the new approach was the way to go.

“I was just like, ‘Maybe this will work out. … Maybe I’ll stick with this, and see how this goes,’” he said.

“It was,” Mackanin said, “a night-and-day difference. He’s just more compact.”

That has been evident all season, but never more than in the first two games of this series against the Braves. In Friday’s 10-3 victory, Altherr homered twice, on a 91 mph fastball from Julio Teheran and a 95 mph heater from reliever Jason Hursh.

And never mind that Mackanin had him in the seven-hole because he began the night 1 for 12 against Teheran. He picked out a 2-0 offering from the Atlanta starter and sent it soaring into the left-field seats, some 412 feet away.

“Especially in 2-0 counts and counts like that, you want to really zone in and get a pitch you can really do damage with,” Altherr said. “I was able to do that.”

He was looking fastball on the 2-1 pitch from Hursh as well.

“Was able to put a pretty good swing on it,” Altherr said, “and it happened to go out.”

The next night, Altherr batted second against left-hander Sean Newcomb. (Against righties Mackanin plans to put Freddy Galvis in the 2-hole and hit Altherr third.) And with the Phils down 3-1 and Cesar Hernandez at third with none out in the eighth, Altherr lined a 2-2 fastball from reliever Arodys Vizcaino into right, starting the comeback that resulted in a 4-3, 11-inning victory.

(Also interesting was Newcomb’s approach when he fell behind Altherr 2-0 with two on and one out in the fifth. Newcomb, having seen what Altherr did against Teheran the night before, eschewed the fastball and went changeup/curveball/change, getting two strikes before inducing a short fly to right.)

All this comes a year later than expected. After a promising 39-game cameo in 2015 — Altherr generated 20 extra-base blows among 33 hits — he was penciled in as the regular rightfielder last season. But he tore the tendon sheath in his left wrist while attempting to make a diving catch in spring training and underwent surgery, delaying his season debut until July 28.

When he finally did play, he did little — .197 in 57 games. The talk at that point was that he was nothing more than an extra man.

But just like that, things changed again.

“That’s really the big thing (this season) — just knowing the wrist is all good and I can do what I know I can do,” he said. “And the work that Stairsy has done with me has helped me out tremendously, so all that definitely adds up to being more confident, more relaxed.”

And much more prominent.

Ty Kelly lines walk-off single in 11th inning to hand Phillies 4-3 comeback win

Ty Kelly lines walk-off single in 11th inning to hand Phillies 4-3 comeback win

BOX SCORE

If nothing else, the Phillies’ 4-3 victory over Atlanta on Saturday night showed why you keep a guy like Ty Kelly around.

And, perhaps, why you keep a guy like Odubel Herrera around.

Kelly, a veteran utilityman, won the game with an RBI single in the 11th (see Instant Replay), but Herrera, benched earlier in the week by manager Pete Mackanin for not running out a called third strike, flashed the kind of ability that makes him such an intriguing player, despite his periodic lapses.

He tied the game with a ninth-inning solo homer off Braves closer Jim Johnson, drove in another run with a single, went 3-for-4 and reached base four times.

So while there might still be fans clamoring for him to be elsewhere when Monday’s trade deadline rolls around, the Phillies would have to think long and hard before parting with a 25-year-old who exudes such potential.

“Hopefully,” he said through an interpreter, “I’ve learned my lesson and it won’t happen again. I don’t want to be benched. I’m just expecting good things to happen.”

The counterargument to this week’s shenanigans is an extended stretch of good play on his part. He is hitting .337 since June 1, and Saturday’s homer – on a first-pitch fastball from Johnson – was the first of his career that tied a game in the ninth inning or later.

“It’s definitely been going well,” he said. “It’s better than before. I think it’s all due to timing. When I get to manage my timing, things start clicking for me.”

Kelly’s timing has been no less masterful. His game-winning hit, one of just 13 he has in 71 at-bats this season (.183), was his fifth of the go-ahead variety, and his first walkoff.

“We went to the Ty-breaker,” manager Pete Mackanin said to the expected groans from the media corps.

Pause.

“I had to use that,” he said.

Kelly -- a 29-year-old playing for the sixth organization of his career, and his third this season – is only too happy, meanwhile, to be used.

“I’ve gotten some big opportunities off the bench,” he said. “It’s always nice when you can capitalize on those opportunities.”

He entered the game in the 10th at third base, as part of a double-switch. One inning later, he came to the plate after the Phillies loaded the bases with two outs against reliever Rex Brothers, courtesy of singles by Tommy Joseph and Herrera, as well as a walk to Cameron Rupp.

Kelly’s approach?

“Win the game,” he said. “Just try to do that as much as I can.”

Sound thinking.

For a moment he considered bunting, as Braves third baseman Freddie Freeman was back, but then thought better of it. And when Brothers came at him with an 0-1 fastball, Kelly squared it up and lined it into left-center.

Kelly said he has grown used to sporadic playing time, that he always manages to stay ready.

“It’s an art, for sure,” he said. “It’s something that takes practice.”

In the middle innings, he said, the bench guys head to the indoor cage under the stands and hit off the tee, or hit flips. Anything to get their strokes together. Anything to make the most of the one at-bat they might get over the course of several days.

“That’s the biggest thing – not feeling like you can’t move comfortably,” he said. “Just being comfortable, and treating it like every other at-bat.”

A 13th-round draft pick of the Orioles in 2009, he also spent time in the Seattle, St. Louis and Toronto systems before reaching the majors with the Mets last season. He was on their opening day roster this season as well, but appeared in just one game before he was designated for assignment.

Toronto again scooped him up, but the Phillies acquired him via trade in late April.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” he said of his frequent moves. “It’s been nice to stay on one team for a while here. It’s one of those things in baseball: Guys get moved a lot.”

The idea, then, is to make the most of your chances, wherever you are. Kelly knows that. The Phillies can only hope that Herrera is beginning to understand that as well.
 

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Braves 3 (11 innings)

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Braves 3 (11 innings)

BOX SCORE

Ty Kelly delivered the decisive run with an 11th-inning walk-off single as the Phillies beat Atlanta 4-3 on Saturday night.

Odubel Herrera, who earlier singled home a run, tied the game in the ninth with a solo homer off Braves closer Jim Johnson.

Aaron Altherr also had an RBI single for the Phillies.

Tommy Joseph led off the 11th with a bloop single off Rex Brothers (1-1), the sixth Atlanta pitcher. One out later Herrera grounded a single through the right side, his third hit of the night.

Freddy Galvis flied out, but Rupp walked to load the bases. Kelly, who entered the game in the 10th as part of a double switch, then lined Brothers’ 0-1 fastball into left center to win it.

Hector Neris (3-4) earned the victory by pitching two scoreless innings in relief.

Matt Adams, Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers drove in runs for Atlanta.

Starting pitching report
Both starters, Jerad Eickhoff and Atlanta’s Sean Newcomb, scuffled through five innings. Newcomb needed 96 pitches (54 strikes), Eickhoff 91 (57 strikes).

Neither of their lines looked all that bad, however. Eickhoff yielded three runs (one earned) on five hits, three strikeouts and three walks (two intentional).

Newcomb allowed a run on two hits while striking out four and walking three.

Both starters hit a batter.

The Braves loaded the bases with one out in the first against Eickhoff, on a single, error and hit batter. Adams delivered a run with a sacrifice fly, Markakis another with a double.

Flowers’ sac fly in the fifth made it 3-1.

Newcomb’s finest moments came after the Phils, trailing by two, put two on with one out in the fifth and two of their best hitters, Altherr and Nick Williams, due.

Newcomb fell behind Altherr 2-0 before evening the count with a changeup and a curveball. Altherr then flew out to short right on another change.

Williams skied to center on a 2-2 curve.

Bullpen report
Jesen Therrien pitched a scoreless inning in his major league debut, and Hoby Milner blanked the Braves in the seventh. Pedro Beato, just up from Lehigh Valley, retired the first two hitters he saw in the eighth, but then departed after pulling up lame as he ran to cover first.

Luis Garcia came on to strike out pinch hitter Danny Santana, then tiptoed through a two-on, none-out jam in the ninth.

Atlanta’s Jose Ramirez worked two hitless innings, striking out three. Arodys Vizcaino gave up Altherr’s run-scoring hit in the eighth.

Vizcaino struck out Williams, and Freddie Freeman, who this year has moved from first to third, made a backhand stop on Tommy Joseph’s screamer to begin an around-the-horn double play, ending the inning.

Johnson frittered away his eighth save in 30 opportunities when Herrera homered off him with one out in the ninth.

At the plate
Herrera lined a first-pitch fastball from Johnson into the seats in left-center to knot the game.

Herrera also battled Newcomb through a six-pitch at-bat in the fourth before grounding a 1-2 slider back through the middle for his RBI single.

Cesar Hernandez led off the eighth with his second hit of the night, a triple, and Altherr lined Vizcaino’s 2-2 pitch – a 98 mph fastball – into right field to bring home the run.

Brandon Phillips and Markakis had three hits each for Atlanta. Markakis is now five away from 2,000 in his career.

Medical report
The Braves placed OF Matt Kemp on the 10-day disabled list with the hamstring pull he sustained Friday night.

Up next
RHP Vince Velasquez (2-6, 5.49) takes the mound against RHP R.A. Dickey (6-7, 4.31) on Sunday at 1:35 p.m.