Maikel Franco breaks out of slump just in time to face nemesis Bartolo Colon

Maikel Franco breaks out of slump just in time to face nemesis Bartolo Colon

NEW YORK -- Maikel Franco lugged a career-worst 0-for-21 slump into Thursday night's game against the New York Mets.

By the second inning, the skid had swelled to 0 for 22 and it was reasonable to begin to wonder if Franco would get a night off when the Phillies returned home Friday to face Bartolo Colon and the Atlanta Braves. After all, Franco is 1 for 16 with no walks and three strikeouts lifetime against Colon, the portly right-hander who knows how to exploit Franco's free-swinging tendencies with savvy, pitch movement and change of speed.

When Pete Mackanin posts his starting lineup for Friday night's game, look for Franco to be in it.

Colon or no Colon, Mackanin has to play Franco after the way he rebounded after his first at-bat Thursday night.

Franco scorched an RBI double to left field against gas-throwing Noah Syndergaard in the third inning and later belted a home run against Fernando Salas to help lead the Phillies' 6-4 win over the Mets (see game story).

It was a slump-busting, confidence-building, frustration-dissipating game for Franco. The Phils' cleanup man will carry a .172 batting average into Friday night.

"It was great to see Franco finally break through," Mackanin said. "He's not going to hit .150, .160. These guys that are hitting .380 and .400, they're not going to hit .380 and .400 all season. Everything evens out."

Franco admitted that the slump had begun to frustrate him. He believed that he was hitting the ball better than his results. He was, in fact. Entering Thursday, the ball had come off his bat at 91.7 miles per hour, according to MLB's Statcast data. That was the 18th-best average exit velocity in baseball. On balls in play, Franco was hitting just .136 entering Thursday and that suggests some bad luck.

But it wasn't all bad luck, in the opinion of hitting coach Matt Stairs.

"It's kind of surprising to see his numbers with the amount of work he does in the batting cage," Stairs said before the game. "He works his tail off. He does everything right in the cage, gets out in batting practice and works on things and has great BPs, drives the ball to left-center and right-center, not thinking pull.

"I think the thing that is hurting him this year is that he's gotten some pitches to hit and he's missing them. I really do. If you go back and look at the films, he's had some pitches to hit. I don't know if he's gotten a little too big (with his swing). I think his timing is off a little bit. His foot is getting down late which is causing him to miss those pitches.

"Yeah, he is running into some bad luck. But I'm not going to say that's the reason he's hitting what he's hitting. He's made some easy outs on balls he should be hitting."

Though his batting average is down, Franco's selectivity at the plate, a major problem last year, has improved in the early season. He entered Thursday seeing 3.93 pitches per at-bat, up from 3.56 last year, and his walk rate was 8.3 percent, up from 6.3.

Before the game, Stairs offered the opinion that Franco was ready to break out.

"Am I worried about him?" Stairs said. "No. It takes one swing to turn it around."

Franco found that swing.

Twice.

Now comes the test of Bartolo Colon.

Phillies head home, where their offense was historically bad in 2016

Phillies head home, where their offense was historically bad in 2016

CINCINNATI -- First-year Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs oozes positivity when he talks about approach and game plan with his hitters.

But on Friday, before the Phillies play their home opener against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park, Stairs will mention a couple of negatives.

Like the team's home batting average of .230 last season.

And the team's home on-base percentage of .291 last season.

Not only were both marks the worst in the majors last year, they were the worst in franchise history since official record keeping began in 1913.

"I'll remind them, absolutely," Stairs said. "I'll pull up the numbers. Numbers don't lie.

"That's the only negative thing I'll bring up, though. This is a new year."

The Phillies scored a majors-low 610 runs last season and finished 29th out of 30 clubs in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301), so it stands to reason they would not have been very good at home.

But there was a serious discrepancy in their home and road splits. On the road, they hit .250, which ranked 21st in the majors, and had a .310 on-base percentage, 23rd in the majors. They scored 52 more runs on the road than they did at home.

So what gives?

Stairs, who spent the last three seasons in the broadcast booth, thinks the reason was actually rather simple.

"Smaller park," he said, referring to the cozy dimensions at Citizens Bank Park. "Guys over-swing trying to hit the ball out. That's what it looked like to me watching from the booth. On the road they used the whole field more."

Bench coach Larry Bowa saw the same thing.

"Small ballpark," he said. "Swings get long and loopy.

"We're basically a line-drive hitting team. We're not going to win, 9-8. We're going to win, 4-3, 3-2. Good pitching, catch the ball, runner on third with less than two outs, get him home. That's how we'll win. If you hit a good line drive, it will go out.

"Also, in fairness, we have a lot of good pitching in our division. It's not like we're facing patsies."

He's right about that.

The Phillies face reigning NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer on Friday. He is 7-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 11 career starts against the Phillies and 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA in five starts at Citizens Bank Park.

Cameron Rupp's home-road splits did not match the team's last season. He hit .266 with a .776 OPS at home as opposed to .239/.725 on the road.

"If you stay with your approach and your plan, you'll have success anywhere," he said. "When you get off it, you give away at-bats. That's what Stairsy has been preaching: have quality at-bats. In a hitters park sometimes you try to do too much. We can't do that. We have to stay with our approach."

That's what Stairs will tell his hitters as they head home to face Scherzer on Friday.

"Stay gap to gap," he said.

Schmidt's frank critique: Maikel Franco didn't live up to expectations in 2016

Schmidt's frank critique: Maikel Franco didn't live up to expectations in 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Mike Schmidt arrived in Phillies camp on Friday and was pretty frank when the subject of Maikel Franco came up.

"I was disappointed," the Hall of Fame third baseman said of the current third baseman's 2016 season. "I had a lot higher expectations for Maikel. I may have had the highest expectations, as a matter of fact."

Indeed, it was a year ago at this time when Schmidt said Franco had MVP potential.

Franco, who turned 24 in August, drove in a team-high 88 runs in 2016 and shared the team lead in homers (25) with Ryan Howard. However, he hit just .255 with a .733 OPS. In 80 games in 2015, he hit .280 with a .840 OPS. Those numbers helped fuel Schmidt's high expectations for Franco last season.

"He didn't live up to my expectations last year, but maybe that's part of the plan for him in a stepping stone year," Schmidt said. "I think he should definitely go to the 30-100 category this year. Definitely, barring any injuries.

"If I was mentoring Maikel Franco right now, I would say, 'Son, we're going to be the MVP. And nothing is going to stop us but an injury. And we're going to stretch like hell before every game.' That's what I would be thinking. If I had that talent, I wouldn't be thinking about 25 and 88. I would be thinking about the MVP."

Franco's shortcomings have been well publicized. He is not a selective hitter and everyone from the front office, which wants to build around players who "control the strike zone," to hitting coach Matt Stairs would like to see him improve in that area. Simple experience could help Franco in that area this season. So could the addition of an experienced bat (Michael Saunders) behind him. Franco was a marked man in the Phillies' lineup and often expanded his strike zone as he tried to carry too big a load. The addition of Saunders and Howie Kendrick could help take some pressure off him.

"The area that he has to develop better is game-planning at home plate and understanding there is a guy in the batter's box behind him and that a walk with men on second and third is a possibility," Schmidt said. "His desire to drive in those two runs or getting three with a home run swing leads to those at-bats where you give an at-bat away because you don't have the right game plan.

"It's not mechanics and it's not physical -- it's more up here," Schmidt said, pointing to his head.

Franco could benefit from the hiring of Stairs, who replaced Steve Henderson.

"In Matt's case, there will be more time spent on the mental side of hitting and more in-game coaching," Schmidt said. "I think that is a big addition to our hitters. No disrespect to the former guy -- he's a wonderful guy. But I think that Matt will be more into a different message, something new and more on the game plan and mental, managing yourself in the batter's box, making adjustments.

"It's not that Steve wasn't the same way, but it will be a better communication channel as far as looking for a fastball middle-in 1-0. Let's not be hitting it over the opposite dugout. Let's be looking for a ball to pull. We have a lot of young kids who go into the batter's box and say, 'Here I am,' see the ball and hit it. And you'll see a 2-0 pitch fouled over the first base dugout. At 2-0, they are hitting more defensively and they should be hitting offensively."

Schmidt saw some of Franco's selectivity issues up close as a part of the CSN Philly broadcast team last year.

He also saw something else that he believes Franco needs to improve on.

"Sometimes, Maikel looks like, 'Where's his mind?'" Schmidt said. "He kind of sometimes lets moments in games go based upon the score or based upon attitude. I'm not saying this disrespectfully -- it's normal. Not everyone is like Pete Rose. He knows what's happened in every at-bat for every player on the team during the game. He's sitting on the top step of the dugout screaming at the other team. Not everyone is like that. Your mind can wander and I think sometimes his does a little bit."

Schmidt still believes Franco has MVP potential and he intends on telling him that during his time in camp as a guest instructor.

"That's what I would say to him right now -- 'There's no reason you can't be the best player in the league,'" Schmidt said.