Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

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With Kendrick Lamar's "Duckworth" blaring through the clubhouse speakers, a spirited Phillies team fresh off a six-game winning streak packed its bags for a daunting road trip.

The Phils, 11-9 after Thursday's 3-2 win over the Marlins (see Instant Replay), begin a three-game series at Dodger Stadium Friday night before heading to Wrigley Field for four games with the reigning champion Cubs. 

After that, they play six of their next eight games against the Nationals, who have the best record in baseball and the top three RBI leaders in the majors so far this season.

On the one hand, you want to face these teams when you're hot. On the other hand, we saw what happened late last May when the Phils took a 25-19 record into a nine-game run against the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals that effectively ended their season.

"What a great homestand to leave on," manager Pete Mackanin said. "That was fun. We're coming together as a team."

The Phillies are winning in many different ways right now. They're hitting homers, getting solid starting pitching and effective bullpen work. Three of these six straight wins have been in one-run games.

On Thursday, Jeremy Hellickson handled the free-swinging Marlins yet again. He had a 2.01 ERA against them in six starts last season and carried that success into this start, allowing one run on seven hits with no walks over six innings.

Hellickson has walked just three Marlins in 46 1/3 innings the last two seasons.

"Hellickson, this guy, sometimes I watch him pitch and when he's doing it right, it looks like he's just playing catch with the catcher," Mackanin said.

It's interesting that Hellickson has had this much success early without striking anyone out.

"I've never struck that many guys out," said Hellickson, who did admit he's a little surprised his numbers have been so stellar without the benefit of a few more K's. He's struck out just 11 of the 115 batters he's faced in 2017.

But Hellickson's 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.80 WHIP through five starts. His pace is slow, but his outs are quick.

The key spot for Hellickson came in the fourth when Martin Prado and Christian Yelich began the inning with singles. Runners were on the corners with nobody out and Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto coming up.

But Hellickson got his only strikeout of the afternoon in that spot, whiffing Stanton, who continues to have relatively quiet games against the Phillies. Ozuna popped out and Realmuto lined out to end the threat.

Hellickson retired all three of them on changeups, his go-to pitch that has legitimately become one of the best pitches in baseball.

Hellickson entered Thursday's start with the fourth-lowest opponents' batting average (.155) on his changeup of any major-league starter since last season. He got seven more outs with that pitch against the Marlins.

You don't often see — in fact, you rarely ever see — a right-handed pitcher turn to his changeup against righties, especially with men in scoring position. Typically, a right-handed changeup is used as an out-pitch against lefties because it fades down and away from them. 

But Hellickson's is so good that he's OK throwing it to any hitter in any count.

"Bob McClure and I had that conversation in the early part of last season," Mackanin said. "I didn't understand it. I told Mac, 'I'm not crazy about right-on-right changeups.' He said, 'Pete, it's such a good changeup that he gets people out with it.' I said OK, I'll defer to you on this one. 

"And as the season went along, he was right. If you've got that good of an arm action on your changeup that deceives the hitters and the movement, you can get anybody out with it."

Offense for the Phillies wasn't plentiful but it was enough. They scored a run on Dee Gordon's first-inning error, a second after Freddy Galvis' one-out triple in the third, and the deciding run came on Brock Stassi's RBI triple in the sixth.

That was all they needed because of another strong effort by Hellickson and the relievers behind him.

Hector Neris picked up his third save with a 1-2-3, seven-pitch ninth inning. Joaquin Benoit had a perfect eighth inning with two strikeouts. 

But sidewinding Pat Neshek picked up the biggest outs with men on base in the seventh inning of a one-run game. The inning ended with a weak swing by Stanton, who punched out with two men on.

It came just a couple weeks after Neshek made Yoenis Cespedes look silly after numerous other Phillies pitchers were victimized by the Cuban slugger.

"For the most part," Neshek said when asked if his deceptive delivery plays better against big, right-handed power hitters. "There's some guys like Adrian Beltre that just destroyed me. But yeah, I like facing big righty guys. That's kind of what I've done all my career."

"It's very important," Mackanin said of Neshek's deceptiveness. "The biggest thing about that is hitters don't see that very often. They don't see it all the time. If they saw it all the time, it would be less imposing. But when you have to change your eyesight down to knee- or ankle-level, it's very disruptive. The deception is what gets you out.

"That was huge. You know what Stanton's capable of doing and Neshek just did a fine job on him. For whatever reason, we seem to make a lot of quality pitches against that guy."

Indeed they do. Now they hope to make some quality pitches against Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy over the next two weeks. 

If they don't, all the positivity of this six-game winning streak will be but a distant memory by mid-May.

"I'm obviously pleased with the performance of the players," Mackanin said. "We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year."

Phillies call up pitching prospect Ben Lively; paternity leave for Pat Neshek

Phillies call up pitching prospect Ben Lively; paternity leave for Pat Neshek

Another Phillies pitching prospect is on his way to The Show.

Right-hander Ben Lively, who is 12-6 with a 3.15 ERA and 0.93 WHIP for Lehigh Valley since the start of 2016, was recalled from Triple-A. 

The Phillies have a roster opening for a few days with reliever Pat Neshek going on paternity leave. 

Lively, who was scheduled to start for the IronPigs on Thursday, will help out in the bullpen. 

The move comes a day after the Phillies selected the contract of RHP Mark Leiter Jr., who could serve as the long man. The Phillies also brought up Zach Eflin on Tuesday before his start at Citi Field, and gave Jake Thompson 10 starts last summer. Mark Appel and Nick Pivetta, also in the Triple-A rotation, could be up at some point this season as both are on the 40-man roster.

Lively, 25, was acquired by the Phillies from the Reds prior to 2015 for Marlon Byrd. He dominated last season at Double-A Reading, going 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA before making the jump to Triple-A, where he was also effective.

Lively is not a hard thrower but he is a strike thrower -- 66 percent of his pitches last season were strikes, and he's walked just 2.2 batters per nine innings since joining the Phillies' system.

It's the realization of a lifelong dream for another Phillies prospect.

Closer Jeanmar Gomez's leash shorter after tightrope act on opening day

Closer Jeanmar Gomez's leash shorter after tightrope act on opening day

CINCINNATI -- The taste of the Philllies' opening day win over the Cincinnati Reds was not as sweet as it could have been for manager Pete Mackanin.

Sure, he was thrilled to see Cesar Hernandez open the game with a home run and Freddy Galvis add a longball in the second inning and newcomers Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick come up with big hits and another newcomer, reliever Joaquin Benoit, put up a roadblock on the Reds' offense in the sixth inning.

But Mackanin was left with a bit of a sour aftertaste after closer Jeanmar Gomez had reprised the wobbly ways that cost him the job late last season.

"I'm concerned about it," Mackanin said, plainly.

The successful setup work of Benoit, Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris had netted Gomez a three-run lead and a layup of a save in his first appearance of the season, but he came way too close to coughing up that lead for Mackanin's liking. Gomez gave up a leadoff single and a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth as the Reds made it a one-run game. Gomez finally got the last out and the Phillies won, 4-3, but it was a little too close for the manager, who has carried an uneasiness about his closer situation for months. That much became evident when Mackanin started qualifying his comments about the closer role, saying things like Gomez was his closer "for now," and "He's going to get every opportunity to do the job. If he doesn't, we're going to take a look at it."

Well, Mackanin is already taking a look at it.

Gomez's leash got a little shorter on opening day.

"I had two guys up in the 'pen in that ninth inning," Mackanin said. "(Gomez) is just not getting the ball down the way he did when he was successful. I want to make sure that he gets opportunities, but at the same time, I don't want to let games slip away."

Gomez won respect from the skipper when he plugged a problematic closer position and saved 37 games last season.

But this year, the Phils have legitimate options at closer. They signed Benoit, who was throwing 96 mph on Monday, in the offseason, and Ramos and Neris, both owners of closer stuff, have a year of valuable experience under their belts.

"It's very tricky," Mackanin said. "Like I said, [Gomez] has earned the right to have the opportunity to be the closer. But at the same time, just because a guy is a closer doesn't mean you can't take him out of the game when he's getting the ball up.

"He got the save. He did the job. But he's got to get the ball down. That pitch was up in the zone for an opposite-field home run. I don't want that to happen.

"As I said last year, and I'll always say it, you audition every day. Just because you're the cleanup hitter doesn't mean you're going to stay the cleanup hitter. Just because you're the closer doesn't mean you have to stay the closer. Like I said, a closer doesn't have to stay in the game, win or lose. It depends on what the manager feels is best for the team. So, you know, we'll go from there.

"I certainly have options. I don't want to make too big of a deal out of it, but I owe it to the team to do what I think is best for the team."

The Phillies are off on Tuesday.

If they have a save situation on Wednesday night, Gomez will likely be the guy that Mackanin calls upon. But one more walk on the tightrope could lead to an early change in the role. Stay tuned.