Phillies show fight in 7-run comeback but see 3-game winning streak snapped in loss to Brewers

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Phillies show fight in 7-run comeback but see 3-game winning streak snapped in loss to Brewers

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The big-picture implications of Jeremy Hellickson’s start Saturday against Milwaukee — i.e., his trade value, potential destination, etc. — were left to others to ponder.

Hellickson was more concerned about smaller matters.

Like the eight pitches he threw to Eric Thames in the third inning.

Or the three batters who followed Thames.

In Hellickson’s mind, that’s where the game was lost, as opposed to when the Brewers’ Domingo Santana lined a single to left off Hector Neris in the ninth, chasing home the tie-breaking run in a 9-8 Milwaukee victory (see Instant Replay).

Hellickson, left with a messy no-decision after the Phillies wiped out an 8-1 deficit, was more than willing to shoulder responsibility for the result.

“It just sucks, you know, scoring eight runs and you lose,” the veteran right-hander said. “Usually that falls on the starter, which it did tonight.”

Others might point to the decision by manager Pete Mackanin to bunt amid a three-run eighth inning or the sign that was missed by rookie Cameron Perkins on that play. But that was Hellickson’s story, and he was sticking to it.

In his next-to-last outing before the July 31 trade deadline, he was nicked for six runs in five innings. His ERA, 1.80 in April, is 5.81 since. He is in the last year of his contract and thus might have value as a rental to some team looking for an arm.

But again, there’s the small picture.

“That's not a start I want,” he said, “no matter what's going on.”

Lost in the debris was a 4 for 4 night by Odubel Herrera, who’s hitting .331 since June 1, not to mention three-run homers by Cesar Hernandez and Cameron Rupp, the second of which forged the 8-8 tie in the eighth.

“That was a tough one to take,” Mackanin said. “You’re down by seven runs, 8-1. I thought we had the momentum going in our favor, and we just couldn’t get it done.”

Hellickson rolled through the first two innings, and had two outs and a man on in the third when Thames came to the plate.

An eight-pitch duel following, ending with a walk.

“That was a good at-bat,” Hellickson said. “He put a couple good at-bats on me today. Especially with the humidity and (Ryan) Braun coming up, it was a good at-bat.”

Braun, a certified Phillie-killer (.379 lifetime against them, .398 in Citizens Bank Park), had lined a single through the box in the first. This time he roped a double into the right field corner to score the game’s first two runs.

Braun took third on the throw, then scored on a wild pitch with Travis Shaw at the plate. Shaw rocketed Hellickson’s 2-1 changeup to center for a double and came home when Santana singled on a first-pitch curveball.

So, 4-0.

“I think (the start) was good except for that four-batter span there in that third inning,” Hellickson said. “Can't walk Thames with two outs. … I’ve just got to find a way to get out of that inning after the second out.”

Braun, 3 for 3 in the game, also hit a two-run homer in the fifth. Herrera, who also doubled twice, answered with a solo shot in the bottom of that inning.

Milwaukee’s lead grew to 8-1 in the seventh. Braun drew a walk from reliever Adam Morgan, but Morgan later had him dead to rights on a pickoff attempt. Trouble is, first baseman Tommy Joseph overthrew second base, and leftfielder Howie Kendrick allowed the ball to get through him. Braun, as a result, came all the way around to score.

The paying customers, you may be sure, were not thrilled — even less so when Shaw followed with a homer.

The comeback followed. Four runs in the seventh, including Hernandez’s tracer into the seats in right-center. Rupp’s opposite-field shot an inning later.

Perkins singled after Rupp’s homer, the Phillies’ fourth straight hit off struggling reliever Jacob Barnes. Mackanin then asked Hernandez to sacrifice, but he popped up to Shaw, who was charging from third.

Perkins “misinterpreted” the sign, according to Mackanin, thinking the hit-and-run was on. He was, as a result, doubled off first. Inning over. Comeback, too.

“It was fun to watch,” Hellickson said of the rally. “Just got to find a way to get that third out with nobody on base.”

That’s how things looked from his vantage point, anyway. Others were, in the meantime, scanning the big picture.

6 Phillies who took big steps backward in the first half

6 Phillies who took big steps backward in the first half

We took a look Monday at the four Phillies who made major strides in the first half — Aaron Altherr's shorter swing has led to more consistency; Aaron Nola looks the best he ever has; Nick Pivetta has shown he's a major-league starting pitcher, and Luis Garcia finally has his control under control.

Unfortunately for the Phils, and this is obviously the case for a 29-58 team, there were more negatives than positives in the first half.

Today, we take a look at six players who took big steps backward in the first half.

CF Odubel Herrera
Defensively, Herrera has only gotten better. Offensively, he has not been close to the guy we saw the last two seasons. 

Herrera entered the All-Star break hitting .256 with a .292 on-base percentage. In 2015 and '16, he hit .291 with a .353 OBP.

In 84 games, Herrera has 16 walks and 84 strikeouts. He had 23 walks last April alone.

If you remove last April from the equation, though, Herrera has 56 walks in his last 898 plate appearances. That's a 6.2 percent walk rate. The league average this season is 8.6 percent. So if you've thought over the last calendar year that Herrera's selectivity at the plate has been below-average, you'd be right.

This was not the first half the Phillies wanted to see from Herrera after guaranteeing him $30.5 million in the offseason. Beyond the offensive numbers, he also made baserunning blunders and expanded the strike zone with regularity.

Herrera can still hit and cover much of the plate when he wants to. But a lot of times it looks almost as if he steps to the plate already having decided whether he'll swing at the next pitch, regardless of where it goes. Until he gets back to taking bad pitches and fouling off good ones, he's not going to improve.

Herrera has been batting sixth or seventh a lot lately. Even in a down year, he should probably be batting closer to the top of the order because of his importance to this team's future. The difference in batting 1 or 2 vs. 6 or 7 is about 100 plate appearances over a full season. Don't you want your young, important guys getting as many reps as possible?

It's not an open-and-shut case for Pete Mackanin, who moved Herrera down because he was tired of seeing him get himself out.

3B Maikel Franco
Franco and Herrera, thought to be two of the Phillies' young building blocks, entered the break with a combined on-base percentage of .283. 

That number alone expresses how poor a first half both players had. If two of your top guys post that low an OBP over more than one-half of a season, you're in for a world of hurt. 

Franco hit .217 in 83 games with 14 doubles, 13 homers and 45 RBIs. He actually walked nine times more than Herrera.

But much of that run production came in the first three weeks of the season. Franco hit two grand slams and drove in 20 runs in his first 19 games. He's driven in 25 runs in his last 64.

Franco has been brutal with runners in scoring position, hitting .195 with just five extra-base hits in 95 plate appearances. With a runner on third and less than two outs, he's 2 for 20.

It's not hard to figure out why. Franco, like Herrera, has a habit of expanding the strike zone and getting himself out. There are plenty of holes in Franco's swing that have been exposed. Why any pitcher would ever throw him a middle-in fastball is beyond me because it's so easy to get him to roll over on an outside fastball or swing over a low-and-away slider.

He still has impressive raw power, and when a pitch is in his swing path he's capable of hitting it out of the ballpark. But there's so much more that goes into being a productive middle-of-the-order hitter. Franco, who turns 25 on Aug. 26, hasn't yet been able to learn and incorporate those finer points. 

The Phillies like to describe guys like Howie Kendrick and Daniel Nava as "hitters," a simplified way of saying "these guys go up to the plate with a plan in place and an ability to adapt."

Franco is not that now, and it's not too early to question whether he'll ever grow into it. He's now reached 1,370 big-league plate appearances and hit .248 with a .302 OBP. Even if you're hitting 25 to 30 homers per year, that doesn't cancel out a batting average and OBP so low and a double play total so high. Franco has grounded into 17 double plays, most in the majors, many of them a result of his trying to pull outside pitches.

Franco is not being shopped by the Phillies, but they will listen to trade offers and could act if an intriguing offer materializes. No team ever wants to sell low on a player, but if the Phillies trade Franco, they'd be doing it under the assumption that this is who he is and will be long-term.

C Cameron Rupp
Rupp had a couple good games heading into the All-Star break, going 4 for 7 with a homer in the Padres series. But through 197 plate appearances, his batting average is 32 points lower than it was last season and his OPS is 70 points lower.

Rupp last season hit .252/.303/.447 with 26 doubles and 16 homers. He's not an above-average defender behind the plate, so he needs to earn his playing time by hitting for power. Last season, he did. This season — during which he's hit .220/.310/.370 with eight doubles and six homers — he hasn't.

Rupp's prolonged slump coupled with Andrew Knapp's decent on-base percentage (.355) has resulted in more playing time for Knapp. Since June 1, Knapp has 75 plate appearances and Rupp has 64.

The Phillies will have to decide this winter or early next spring which catcher is the odd man out (if all three are healthy). Jorge Alfaro will be up in the bigs next season, and at this point, it looks more like he'll be sharing catching duties with Knapp than Rupp.

Closer Hector Neris
Neris owns the third-best ERA on the Phillies' pitching staff at 3.52, but he hasn't been the dominant force he was much of last season.

Neris in 2016: 2.58 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, opponents hit .202

Neris in 2017: 3.52 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, opponents hit .236

Neris had the feel and command of his splitter practically all of last season. This season, it's come and gone, and the success of a few outings hasn't gotten him into an extended groove.

The Neris game everyone will remember is the April 29, back-to-back-to-back home run game in Los Angeles. He followed that by allowing one run in 11⅔ innings in May. But since then, he's been scored upon in six of 14 appearances.

Neris has not adjusted well to the closer's role, and now there are questions whether he can fill it long-term. He's still a valuable piece to have in the bullpen, but he might be most successful as a team's second- or third-best reliever.

RHP Jerad Eickhoff
Eickhoff finally earned his first victory of 2017 in the final game before the All-Star break. In his return from a DL stint caused by an upper back strain, Eickhoff pitched five shutout innings and struck out eight Padres.

Like Neris, Eickhoff this season has not had consistently great command of his best pitch. Eickhoff's curveball has been there at times but not in all 15 starts, and as a result, he's 1-7 with a 4.63 ERA and .280 opponents' batting average.

The second half for Eickhoff is crucial. The Phillies would love to see him revert back to his 2016 form when he was stingy with walks and effectively throwing three different pitches (fastball, curveball, slider).

I'm more confident with Eickhoff than the others listed above that his first half was merely a blip on the radar. Long-term, he still projects as a No. 3 or No. 4 NL starter.

RHP Jake Thompson
Thompson pitched three games in relief for the Phillies in early May and allowed five runs in five innings. In 16 starts with Triple A Lehigh Valley, he's 3-10 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. He's allowed 101 hits in 82⅓ innings.

It's tough at this point to have faith that Thompson will be an effective major-league starting pitcher. His repertoire just hasn't looked good enough — the fastball has looked average, as has the breaking ball, there isn't much deception in his delivery, and his control has been erratic. 

Thompson was so good last season at Triple A (11-5, 2.50 ERA in 21 starts) because he limited walks and induced a lot of double plays. That hasn't been the case this season. He's already nearly matched his 2016 walk total, and he's induced six double plays compared to 32 a year ago.

Thompson has fallen behind Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively on the Phillies' organizational depth chart and may be behind Tom Eshelman by the end of the season if things don't turn around.

Nick Pivetta, Phillies suffer another 1-run loss in series opener with Padres

Nick Pivetta, Phillies suffer another 1-run loss in series opener with Padres

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As Friday’s Phillies game wandered through its second hour, a ring of darkness covered Citizens Bank Park. The skies prepared to douse 80s Retro Night with a vicious storm that caused a 94-minute rain delay, jeopardizing the fireworks most of the 38,000 people filling the blue seats came to see. 

But for the nine guys on the field wearing the maroon pinstripes of their 1983 predecessors, Austin Hedges, and not the weather, was the spoiler. 

The 24-year-old Padres catcher entered Friday as a .214 hitter batting eighth on a team 13 games under .500. Then his three-RBI night and first career multi-home run game, at the expense of rookie right-hander Nick Pivetta, combined with a ninth-inning letdown from closer Hector Neris to best the Phillies in a 4-3 Padres’ win (see Instant Replay).

“He pitched very well,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said of his starter. “We should’ve won.”

For seven pre-downpour innings, Pivetta handled most of the Padres’ lineup. Coming off a brilliant outing in New York last weekend in which his only run and hit allowed came on a solo home run, Pivetta, with his fastball reaching 96 mph, struck out nine and walked none. He allowed just five hits, but three of them, like the one against the Mets, ended up over the fence. 

In the first, Pivetta left a curveball out over the plate for Padres left fielder Jose Pirela to pipe 450 feet to left-center field. That was one mistake, one solo home run. Then Hedges launched another Pivetta gaffe into left-center to lead off the third. Make it two. When Hedges came up again in the fifth, he slapped a high fastball the opposite way for his second solo homer of the night. 

A few bad pitches, but 90-plus others didn’t do a lick of damage. 

“I'll take the three solo shots over not walking any guys and striking nine guys out any day,” Pivetta said.

It qualified as a quality start for Pivetta, which Phillies starters have now done 13 times in the team’s last 19 outings. He has claimed only two wins in 11 appearances, but the results have been encouraging of late. He has 35 strikeouts and a 1.11 WHIP in his last five starts. 

In a crowded crop of young pitchers, which could get even younger after the trade deadline, Pivetta has emerged.

“It's just settling in. I have more innings underneath my belt. I've seen a little bit more. I still have a lot to learn, a lot to work on,” Pivetta said. “I think this is a good basis for where I'm at right now and I just want to keep moving forward with that.”

It felt, albeit very briefly, that Pivetta’s performance would be the cornerstone of a win. Despite a Tommy Joseph opposite-field solo shot of his own in the fourth being the only offense the Phillies could manage off Padres starter Clayton Richard before the delay, the Phils’ bats seemed to be cleansed by the washout.

Catcher Cameron Rupp jump-started a rally with a one-out single in the Phillies’ half of the seventh, the first frame after the break. Nick Williams, who didn’t start for the second straight day, whacked a pinch-hit double off the wall in right-center. A Daniel Nava groundout to the pitcher’s left scored Rupp, and the ensuing Freddy Galvis single plated Williams to tie the game. The fans who survived the rain were loud and happy.

The quality on the mound continued with a scoreless eighth from All-Star reliever Pat Neshek. But then Hector Neris came on for the ninth and pitched a dud.

Neris let up a leadoff single to Padres third baseman Cory Spangenberg. Another single advanced Spangenberg to third and a sac fly, courtesy of the oh-so-familiar Hedges, scored him. So much for that comeback.

“He didn't have good command,” Mackanin said of Neris. “Got that fastball up in the strike zone to allow the hitter to get the ball up in the air and get the sac fly that beat us.”

It meant another one-run loss for the Phillies, which they have now suffered 22 times this season. Call it brutal luck or lack of the clutch gene, but the team with baseball’s worst record has that mark partially because it can’t win the close ones.

“Those are games that you want to win,” Joseph said. “... That one-run win-loss record is really haunting us. That's something that, come second half, we have the opportunity to turn around and kind of change the fate of that.”