UnionRed Bull Derby at PPL

UnionRed Bull Derby at PPL

Last week the Union hit the road and played
the MLS west coast glamour franchise (LA Galaxy). This week it's the
east coast MLS glamour franchise, the New York Red Bulls, at home at PPL
Park (7PM/ESPN2).

In last week's game preview
I mentioned that the Union likely would not face a more talented
offensive trio than the Donovan, Beckham, Angel triumverate put together
by Bruce Arena and the Galaxy. This week I feel confident in saying
that the U will not face a more star-studded group than the one Red
Bulls coach Hans Backe puts out there this evening.

From back to front the New York lineup is littered with talent. The Red
Bull back four is anchored by former Barcelona man Rafa Marquez and
budding U.S. centerback Tim Ream. Look, as a USMNT fan I cannot stand
Marquez, and wish nothing but the worst for him, but even I have to
begrudgingly admit that he's had quite a career.

Dwayne De Rosario, who was just acquired from Toronto, is a five time
MLS Best XI selection, who has won four MLS Cups and is a threat to
strike from just about anywhere. Up front the Red Bulls feature Thierry
Henry (who has won every single major team trophy a player could ever
dream of - Premiere League, La Liga, Champions League, World Cup) and
sudden USMNT teenage scoring sensation Juan Agudelo.

They may be trophy-less, but on paper their lineup is incredibly impressive.

The Union, who have had trouble scoring goals thus far (just two in
three games), need to get things sorted out offensively. They've
developed this terrible habit of completely bypassing the midfield as
they transition from defense to offense. There has been no link
whatsoever between the back four and the midfield. Too often the backs
are simply pounding speculative long passes into space and hoping Carlos
Ruiz can catch up to it.

The lone playmaking midfielder who has had any impact this season is
Roger Tores. He's come off the subs bench the last two weeks and
injected some much needed life and creativity into the Union attack.
Stefani Miglioranzi and Brian Carroll have combined to clamp things down
defensively in the center of the field, but perhaps Peter Nowak should
consider introducing a more offensive minded player into his lineup?

Justin Mapp, who has missed the last two games due to injury, is not
listed on the injury report. If fit he'd provide some sorely needed wide
play. Perhaps Nowak will ease him back into the mix by utilizing him
off the bench. Lord knows they need his speed and service from the
flanks.

Defensively the Union don't need to change much. Perhaps better
marking on set pieces, as last week the Galaxy scored the decisive goal
off of a Beckham free kick. Aside from that Faryd Mondragon, Sheannon
Williams, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, and Jordan Harvey have been
stellar.

I mentioned the marquee names the Red Bulls boast, but for some
reason the player that worries me most is Dane Richards. His speed may
present a serious problem for the Union. We saw how much they struggled
to contain Brad Davis against Houston. Richards, although not as class a
player as Davis, could cause the Union some problems.

One final note...the Union are coming off a 120-minute mid-week US
Open Cup loss to DC United. Nowak played the bulk of his starters
Wednesday night. We'll have to see how much, if at all, the energy they
expended against United hampers them tonight.

Final Score Prediction: The combination of the mid-week loss and the NYRB having superior talent dooms the Union tonight. Red Bulls win it 2-0.

The Toni Stahl Memorial Union Player Most Likely To See Red: Danny Califf, who is playing with a bum knee, may struggle all night to keep up with the pace and creativity of Agudelo.

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph is making the Phillies' situation at first base quite tricky.

Joseph on Thursday continued building on his red-hot month of May by going 2 for 5 with a game-tying homer in the seventh and a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning of the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's hit .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

That'll hold off the eye-popping production of Rhys Hoskins for now (see Future Phillies Report).

Extending it further, Joseph has played 148 career games with 499 plate appearances in the majors. That's just a bit less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. He's provided above-average offensive production from first base.

Most Phillies fans know Joseph's story — big-time catching prospect acquired from the Giants in the 2012 Hunter Pence trade, series of concussions, position switch, hot start to 2016 at Triple A, promotion, production.

It was a long, winding road for Joseph, and when he was asked Thursday if he expected to be this solid 500 plate appearances into his major-league career, he brought up health.

"My goals were to be healthy, to be able to play in 162 games and that's all I really want to be able to do," Joseph said. "That's something I haven't been able to do in my career and it's something that I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to the challenge to go through the mental challenge and the physical challenge and I'd say that's my No. 1 goal, that's my only goal. Because if I'm able to stay healthy and stay on the field then I'm able to enjoy this great game and getting to share it with my teammates."

As for the May adjustments, Joseph said the standard things about communicating with hitting coach Matt Stairs, working in the cage and staying consistent with his approach. His timing wasn't there in April but it's certainly been there in May.

"There's no telling what clicks in a guy, it's just a matter of making a minor adjustment sometimes, possibly getting better pitches to hit," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's no telling what it is, but he just looks a lot more comfortable at the plate."

Bullpen bouncing back
It's been completely overshadowed by the Phillies' recent skid but the bullpen has pitched very well of late. The unit that was overworked and criticized in April has combined to allow just two earned runs in its last 22 2/3 innings. On Thursday, six Phillies relievers — Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez — pitched six scoreless innings.

Neshek made the play of the day, diving and landing on his head to snag a pop-up bunt attempt before turning and firing to first base for the double play.

"I said early on that I think it's one of our strengths," Mackanin said of the bullpen. "And after today you can see why I have a lot of confidence in them."

Neshek, who has pitched in the postseason for four different teams, said Thursday that he thinks this is one of the best bullpens he's ever been around. It's not lip service, either. The unit was terrible in April, there's no getting around that. But some of that really did have to do with the overuse. Setup men were entering in the sixth inning. Opportunities for holds and saves were few and far between. Roles were not defined.

Stuff-wise, repertoire-wise, there is a lot to like about the Phillies' bullpen. Neris, Benoit and Neshek all offer vastly different looks and have track records of success.

While Neshek didn't totally endorse Benoit's comments from a few weeks ago that everything would settle down once the relievers knew specifically which inning they'd pitch, he did say that he too feels most comfortable coming in during a hold opportunity.

"I think my numbers show that I'm best in those situations, coming into a hold opportunity when we're ahead," Neshek said. "We haven't had much of those lately."

The horrendous start to the season for the Phillies' relievers will skew their stats all season long, but it's nice to see that at least one aspect of this team is starting to get into a groove.

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

Vince Velasquez needed 94 pitches to complete five innings in yet another short outing Thursday ... but still, it was a nice step in the right direction.

Velasquez minimized the damage against a stacked Rockies lineup, allowing one run over five innings with seven strikeouts in a 2-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay). He avoided having that one big, meltdown inning. His pitch count still soared because the Rockies fouled off 28 pitches, but it was a promising sign that the longest at-bat of the day — 11 pitches to Charlie Blackmon — ended in a strikeout.

"Today was just huge on my part, even giving up the home run (to Trevor Story), just shutting down the majority of the guys," Velasquez said. "I gave up seven hits, but limiting the damage and getting out of the innings. These guys are just attacking.... I had a plan to attack the guys. You know, prior starts, changing game plans causes damage. So keep planning to attack and work your way around that.

"They're fouling off fastballs, it means they're late on them. I'm not changing my mentality. Why throw a curveball?"

Velasquez met with pitching coach Bob McClure last Sunday after his latest poor start Saturday in Pittsburgh. The key advice he was given was "stick to your strengths." Anybody who's watched Velasquez the last two seasons knows what his strength is: his fastball.

"Definitely. That's my go-to," Velasquez said. "[Before], I was just pretty much having second thoughts about certain pitches and again, just changing my game plan. If you shy away from that, things pretty much go away from you. That's where you get hurt. Today's mentality didn't change at all. I attacked guys with high fastballs in 0-2 counts. Story put a good swing on it and it ended up escalating out."

That was the one big mistake Velasquez made. He threw an 0-2 fastball right down the middle that Story hit out of the park. The Phillies have allowed the most 0-2 home runs in the majors this season (six) and the last two seasons combined (17). For reference, the Marlins have allowed the fewest over that span, just two.

But still, the high fastballs for Velasquez mostly worked on this afternoon. He induced 10 swinging strikes on 72 fastballs.

His off-speed stuff was a different story. The Rockies' first two hits of the day came on curveballs and they went 4 for 6 against his curve, slider and changeup. Colorado's hitters swung through just 2 of the 22 offspeed pitches they saw from Velasquez.

Manager Pete Mackanin said after Velasquez's last start that commanding his off-speed pitches is the key for him. His fastball is great, we all know that, but it just doesn't play multiple times through the order when the other team knows that pitch is coming in every key situation.

"The changeup was actually working a little bit [today]," Velasquez said. "It was down. That's just another pitch I need to work on a little bit more. But it's coming around. The curveball has a good shape to it but, again, it's just locating it."

It's important to keep it all in perspective when it comes to Velasquez. He's a power-armed 24-year-old who's still figuring things out. Most pitchers wouldn't be doing their jobs by going five innings, but with Velasquez it's a baby-steps approach — every small step in a positive direction being a sign that his dominant stuff can someday translate into consistency. 

He'll carry a 2-4 record and 5.55 ERA into his next start Tuesday in Miami.