matt stairs

Urging patience, Matt Stairs believes there's still a great player lurking inside of Maikel Franco

Urging patience, Matt Stairs believes there's still a great player lurking inside of Maikel Franco

In the visiting clubhouse after Sunday's game in Washington, Matt Stairs made eye contact with a reporter and gave an implicit little nod that seemed to say, "OK. Not bad. It's a start."

During an interview earlier in the day, the first-year Phillies hitting coach had talked extensively about one of his pupils, Maikel Franco. Stairs praised Franco's talent and work ethic, and expressed the opinion that someday it would all come together for the recently turned 25-year-old third baseman, that ultimately Franco would grow from the struggles he has endured during the 2017 season and become the consistent middle-of-the-order run producer that the Phillies have long hoped he'd be.

"I still believe that inside that mind and body of his is a great player," Stairs said. "I really do."

A couple of hours later, the Phillies faced Stephen Strasburg, one of Washington's stud starting pitchers. Strasburg pitched eight shutout innings against the Phillies, running his scoreless innings streak to a franchise-record 34. He struck out 10 and gave up just two hits, both sharply hit singles by Franco.

Franco's two-hit day came after he'd belted a pair of home runs in the previous two games. The home runs followed a three-game stint on the bench to accommodate J.P. Crawford, who arrived in the majors for an audition last week. Crawford is getting time at third base because Franco, plagued by inconsistency at the plate this season, has not locked up the position long term. He's made himself an easy "sit" with his frequent cold spells.

Nonetheless, Stairs was pleased with Franco's work at the plate on Sunday and in the previous two games. Hitting coaches are tireless, underappreciated soldiers of the game, toiling for hours in batting cages and video rooms in the back corridors of ballparks long before the gates open to fans. They live and die with every at-bat their students take, quietly rejoicing in the successes and privately wincing when things don't go right.

Franco's .229 batting average and .683 OPS have caused more than a few winces in the Phillies organization this season. But this was a good weekend in Washington. Hence, Stairs' unspoken review — OK. Not bad. It's a start.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has spoken often this season about Franco's needing to make some adjustments at the plate because what he's been doing has simply not worked consistently.

Franco has tinkered with some things. He tried resting his hands on his shoulders during his setup at the plate — the Stairs-suggested strategy worked for Aaron Altherr this season and an old teammate named Jayson Werth years ago — for several games recently but that change did not last long.

Over the weekend in Washington, Franco incorporated a front-toe raise to his open stance. The hope is that it forces his momentum forward, toward the pitcher, and stops him from pulling off pitches. Franco even raised his hands slightly over the weekend.

Stairs wants to see more of that.

Over the weekend, during one of their frequent skull sessions, Stairs expressed his desire to see Franco raise his hands even more. In Franco's current setup, his hands sit around the height of the letters on his uniform top. Stairs would like to see Franco bring his hands up to around chin-high.

"I don’t want him to do it now," Stairs said. "Just think about it now. Mess around with it in BP and cage work."

Franco plans to play winter ball in his native Dominican Republic in November. Stairs would like to see him work on the adjustment then. On Sunday, Franco said he was open to the change and will work on it.

"Why not?" said Franco, one of the most upbeat guys in the Phillies clubhouse. "I'm open to everything, whatever will help me. I always want to learn more."

One of Franco's issues is that he often over-swings and pulls off the ball by opening his front hip.

How will raising his hands address that issue?

"There's too much movement from low to high and by the time he gets his hands up and goes toward the baseball, he's late," Stairs said. "When you're late, the first thing you do is cheat and you spin, everything flies open, your foot goes in the bucket and you pull off the baseball."

Stairs wants Franco to watch video of former American League MVP Miguel Tejada. Stairs and Tejada were teammates in Oakland.

"Not that I want him to hit like Tejada, but watch his path, watch his swing, watch his hands," Stairs said. "They have the same type of swing."

Stairs hopes that if Franco has results with the adjustment of his hands, success will follow and confidence — the magic ingredient in all things performance related — will come.

"I told Mikey I was in the exact same spot as you," Stairs said. "I hit .227 one year. I know what he's going through. It's frustrating. It's embarrassing."

Stairs actually believes Franco has a sound, basic understanding of the strike zone. But too often he swings at everything. And he's been an easy out in hitter's counts, batting just .187 when he's up in the count.

"When he's ahead in the count — bad hitter; he gets himself out," Stairs said. "Numbers don’t lie on that. He thinks he's going to get a cookie and he over-swings."

Stairs talks hitting the way Guy Fieri talks good eats — often, enthusiastically and to most everyone who crosses his path. Recently, he chatted with San Diego bench coach Mark McGwire about Franco.

"He loves the potential and thinks he's going to be fine once he gets his direction going toward the pitcher and improves his pitch selection," Stairs said.

"Mikey is still young and he has some of the best hands I've ever seen in baseball. He has thunder in his hands. People are going to see the numbers and say, 'You're crazy,' but ... patience."

All signs point to the front office having that patience for at least another year. Though Crawford has played some third — and it's not completely out of the question that he stays there — that's probably more a matter of finding a place to get some at-bats without completely disrupting Freddy Galvis' season. Crawford still projects mostly as the shortstop of the future with Galvis moving on either in a trade this winter or next summer or as a free agent after next season.

Franco's name was out there earlier this season as a trade candidate. The Phillies' ears are always open, but in the case of Franco, the potential returns were not good. Franco's poor season had hurt his value and rival teams were looking for a steal. The Phillies weren't and still aren't ready to give up on him.

Still to be determined, however, is whether Franco is this team's long-term third baseman. Manny Machado is only a season away from free agency and he has many fans in the Phillies hierarchy. All signs point to the Phillies' giving Franco more time to correct his flaws and reach his potential in 2018. Maybe in that time he builds trade value. Or maybe he shows himself to be a player the team can build around.

"I absolutely believe in Maikel Franco's future," general manager Matt Klentak said. "I think there's too much talent there. He has the bat speed, the strength, his defense has taken a step forward. All the components are there for Maikel to still be a really good player. I know his numbers right now aren't what a lot of people expected or hoped, but we still believe strongly in his future."

But that future hinges on Franco making improvements. And that improvement hinges on his making some adjustments at the plate. Some of the adjustments have already started. And to read Matt Stairs' mind: OK. Not bad. It's a start.

Former Phillies setup man Ryan Madson plays key role in Nationals' win

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Former Phillies setup man Ryan Madson plays key role in Nationals' win

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WASHINGTON — It was a sight we'd seen before, Ryan Madson mowing down hitters in the eighth inning with a big fastball and a baffling changeup for one of the best teams in baseball.

Only this wasn't 2008 and Madson wasn't wearing a Phillies uniform.

Nine seasons after he helped the Phillies win the World Series as the bridge to Lidge, Madson, now 37, is back in the National League East pitching for the playoff-bound Washington Nationals. He got three big outs — two via strikeouts — in a one-run game in the eighth inning to help the Nats beat the Phillies, 4-3, on Thursday night (see observations).

The Nationals' magic number for clinching a fourth straight NL East title is down to four.

Madson joined the Nats in a July trade deadline deal with Oakland. Lefty closer Sean Doolittle also came over in that deal. The duo has been sensational. Doolittle racked up his 16th save in as many chances for the Nats on Thursday night. Madson has collected 12 scoreless innings for his new club. He has allowed six hits and a walk while registering 17 strikeouts. And he's still hitting 97 mph on the radar gun, just like he did in 2008 when he was the setup man for Brad Lidge.

"It's a big gift, a huge gift, coming over here," Madson said after the game. "I just feel very fortunate to have been pitching well enough to be invited over here."

Madson is a survivor. He left the Phillies as a free agent when the Phils signed Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer in November 2011. Shortly after that, Madson was beset by elbow problems and did not pitch in the majors for three seasons. He spent the 2014 season at home before signing with Kansas City in 2015 and helping the Royals win the World Series.

He will get a chance to win a third ring next month.

"My career could have been done very easily," he said. "Thankfully, I found some trainers that got me healthy and got me strong."

Madson said this Nationals team, which also features 2008 Phillies Jayson Werth and Joe Blanton, reminds him of that championship Phillies club.

"And the 2015 Royals," he said. "Any good team is going to have that vibe."

Madson was drafted by the Phillies in 1998. Nineteen years later, he finally pitched against them.

"Pretty crazy," he said. "Somebody just texted me and said that was the last team I hadn't pitched against. Now I've pitched against them all. I didn't even know it."

While he was on the mound, Madson felt no special sentiment pitching against his former team. But after the game ...

"I think it's been so long there was nothing really crazy about it, but after the game I did think about Larry Bowa being over there and I want to say hi to him tomorrow and give him a big hug," Madson said. "He had faith in me and brought me up from Triple A when I was a starter and made me a reliever. So him and Matt Stairs, of course. I need to say hi to them."

Bowa, now the Phillies' bench coach, was the team's manager when Madson came up in 2003. Stairs, now the Phils' hitting coach, was a teammate in 2008. He hit a pretty big home run in the NLCS, if you recall.

Madson worked with a one-run lead Thursday night after Phillies starter Aaron Nola and reliever Adam Morgan could not hold a two-run lead in the bottom of the sixth inning. Nola went 5 1/3 innings and gave up seven hits and three runs, one of which was unearned.

"It wasn't the best we've seen Nola," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He pitched well enough to win. We just didn't score enough."

Two weeks after saying he wanted to keep catcher Cameron Rupp with Nola, Mackanin used rookie Jorge Alfaro behind the plate.

"I just changed my mind," Mackanin said. "I want to see more of Alfaro and let these guys pitch to a different catcher."

Alfaro belted a home run in the third inning. Mackanin believes Alfaro has made strides defensively, though he was charged with a passed ball in the Nationals' three-run sixth.

Alfaro is out of minor-league options and could be the Phillies' primary catcher next season. He needs reps with Nola, the team's most dependable pitcher and a building block for the future.

"He's making a great impression," Mackanin said. "As I always say, everybody is auditioning all the time and he's having a very good audition."

As for Ryan Madson, he is long past the audition stage of his career. But nine years after helping the Phillies win the World Series, he's still going strong and has a chance to win another one in Washington.

Tommy Joseph's discipline yielding better results after ugly April

Tommy Joseph's discipline yielding better results after ugly April

Tommy Joseph has quietly started to turn it on in May. Entering Tuesday's game, the first baseman was hitting .333 with a .417 on-base percentage this month.

In April, he batted .179 with an OBP of .222.

Joseph on Tuesday night continued to see the ball well, going 1 for 2 with a solo homer in the first inning — back-to-back with Michael Saunders — and reaching base three more times via walk.

"At some point guys make adjustments," Pete Mackanin said after a 10-9 loss to the Mariners (see Instant Replay). "And he's been making adjustments and he looks much better at the plate right now. He hit the home run, it was a nice-looking line drive. He's being more selective and not swinging at pitches out of the zone and looking for pitches he can handle."

Joseph seems to have made the necessary adjustments, which stem from hitting coach Matt Stairs, who before the season had stressed the importance of plate discipline.

"I've been working with Stairs quite a bit," Joseph said. "We've been talking about making little adjustments and trying to stay within myself … trying to simplify things a little bit."

After the lackluster April, it was only natural to wonder if the Phillies would consider bringing up first base prospect Rhys Hoskins, who has been tearing up Triple A pitching. Hoskins is hitting .330 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs in 31 games for Lehigh Valley.

But job security is the last thing on Joseph's mind.

"No, no I mean Rhys is a good player," Joseph said. "I know that. Everybody in this organization knows that, but that's not up to me to worry about — job security or anything like that."

Joseph still has only three homers in his first 27 games of 2017. As a rookie last season, he put up seven over his first 27 games and finished the year with 21.

A good sign for Joseph this month has been working more counts. That should lead to more drivable pitches, as shown in his first at-bat on Tuesday.