You Picked a Fine Time to Get Good, Sixers

You Picked a Fine Time to Get Good, Sixers

It's official—this season is last season in reverse. Instead of starting
out weirdly red hot and gradually cooling off over the course of their
season until they hit super rock bottom, they're gonna start from
super-rock-bottom this time and get weirdly red hot at year's end. Going
in this direction is certainly more perplexing than the way things went
down last season, and possibly even more frustrating, but it's arguably
much less cruel, since at least it's too far late in the year for this
team for trick us into thinking they can win a division or challenge the
Heat or something.


The Sixers beat the Blazers last night at the WFC, thus making it
three wins out of four for the Ballers in their recent homestand, with
the fourth game being a narrow loss against the Heat that really should
count as a win because c'mon. Considering the three wins were all
against decent-to-very-good opponents, and considering the Sixers had
lost 12 of 13 prior, this is a pretty remarkable stretch, and almost
certainly the best that the Sixers have played all season. Of course,
this comes amidst the news that Andrew Bynum will not play a minute for
the Sixers this year, and amidst the obvious realization that the only
thing wins can do for the Sixers at this point is hurt their draft
position. Of course.


Some things about this stretch are explicable, and encouraging. Jrue
Holiday has come back to life, back to reality over the last four
games, averaging nearly 23 a game on 50% shooting over the last four
games, along with nine assists, five boards and just two turnovers per
game–the All-Star numbers he was putting up before going ice-cold on the
Sixers' most recent road trip. Thaddeus Young has also been a monster
over this stretch, averaging 18 and about nine boards, while shooting
over 60% from the field. When the Sixers' two best players play this
well, they're gonna win games, so in that sense this is logical and good
to see.


Other things about this stretch are less explicable, and just kinda
disconcerting. Spencer Hawes, after spending much of the first
three-quarters of this season proving why he is an abysmal player not to
be trusted under any circumstances, has gone absolutely hogwild since
returning to the Wells Fargo Center, averaging 16.5 points, 11 boards,
five assists, and nearly three blocks a game over those four games,
including of course that near-quadruple-double he posted against the
Pacers on Saturday. Sixer fans should just be thankful Spence isn't
heading into free agency this off-season, otherwise they'd be so
effusive over this stretch they'd sign him to a five-year max deal out
of sheer gratitude. They might still try to do it anyway.


Even weirder has been the emergence of Damien Wilkins. 33-year-old
journeymen who haven't played more than 20 minutes a game for a team in
half a decade and were never all that good to begin with aren't supposed
to "emerge"—they're supposed to kill time, suck up minutes without
totally sabotaging the team while the actually good players get some
rest or recover from injury or whatever. But there's no denying
it—Wilkins has been really good these last four games, and really even
longer than that, as he's scored in double figures in six of his last
seven games, after only doing so twice in the entire season prior to
that. Even more stupefying, Wilkins has been a secondary playmaker for
the Sixers, too, racking up five or more assists in three of his last
five games.


And while all this is happening, the guy who the Sixers drafted with
the #2 pick a couple years back, expecting him to lead the franchise
back out of the darkness, has been mildly effective at best. Evan has
averaged just 11 a game over the four-game stretch, shooting 38% and
only averaging four boards and about four assists a game to go with it.
Over hot Sixers stretches past, Evan has often been a primary catalyst,
but this time the Sixers are playing well more in spite of him than
because of him. Just another confounding factor of another ridiculous
subplot to this miserable Sixers season.


So what to take away from all of this? Is there anything good to
come of this? Are we sacrificing precious tanking losses for no real
reason? Well, my gut reaction to those three questions are "not much,"
"not really" and "probably." The Sixers probably weren't quite as bad on
the whole as they looked over that 1-12 stretch, and this is probably
just some overdue course correction, assisted by Thad finally getting
healthy, Dorell Wright finally hitting some shots, and Doug Collins
making some game-planning adjustments that result in the big-man
long-two at long last being phased out of the Sixers' offensive attack a
little. You could argue that proving that the team isn't total garbage
might help us in free agency a little, but if we're really giving Al
Jefferson or Josh Smith that much of a hard sell, we're probably in
pretty bad shape anyway.


Anyway, there is one major caveat to all of this: All four games in
the Sixers' recent resurgence have come at home. Despite that abysmal
home loss to the Magic that seemed to be the lug nuts falling off on the
Sixers' entire season, the team's actually been half-decent at the WFC
all season, now boasting a 20-17 record in their home building. It's the
road that's really proven the undoing of the Liberty Ballers this year,
with a 6-23 record (including 13 straight losses) away from Philly, and
it's the road to which they'll soon return, playing their next four
(and 12 of their last 16) as visitors. If there's any kind of flimsiness
to the Sixers' current hotness—and considering the names of some of the
players involved, you have to believe there is—it'll be exposed on the
road for sure.


Speaking of which, Philly plays the Clippers tomorrow night. Do we
want the Sixers to win, somehow? At this point, I think most of us just
want the season to be over.

Phillies Prospect Notebook: Franklyn Kilome, Jose Taveras anchoring Clearwater's strong rotation

Phillies Prospect Notebook: Franklyn Kilome, Jose Taveras anchoring Clearwater's strong rotation

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Prospect Franklyn Kilome is the second-highest rated pitcher in the Phillies' organization, and the right-hander lived up to the billing Sunday, as the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies' Class A Advanced affiliate, closed a three-game series at St. Lucie.

The right-hander twirled seven sparkling innings, shutting down the Mets’ hot bats, as the Threshers blanked St. Lucie 1-0 behind an unearned run at First Data Field to salvage the final game of the series.

Kilome, 21, allowed five hits, struck out six and didn’t issue a walk in winning for the first time since April 27. Only one St. Lucie player managed to reach second base against the 6-foot-6, 175-pound pitcher.

The Dominican pitcher is ranked No. 7 overall by Baseball America among Phillies' prospects. Only 18-year-old Lakewood hurler Sixto Sanchez (fifth overall) is rated above him in the organization.

“He’s got a chance to be a workhorse. Good body, very good arm, but still learning how to pitch a little bit,” pitching coach Aaron Fultz said of Kilome, who improved to 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA.

“He’s up to 97 (mph) with a good curveball and slider. He’s learning a changeup. He’s learning the game, but he’s got a huge upside.”

Jose Taveras (4-2, 2.26) has been another reliable arm on Clearwater’s staff. He led the South Atlantic League in strikeouts last season and has 54 in 55 2/3 innings this year.

Taveras also handled St. Lucie on Saturday, but he was left with a no-decision after the bullpen gave up three runs in a 4-3 loss in 10 innings. The 23-year-old worked six strong innings and yielded just a run on four hits.  

“Taveras is just a very good competitor," Fultz said. "His fastball is average, pretty decent breaking ball and his changeup is good, but the thing that makes him good is he’s just a competitor. He studies the game and the hitters and is very advanced with that.”

Added Threshers manager Shawn Williams: “There are times when he may not have his usual command, and he’ll change an arm angle, which shows he’s got a good feel for what he’s doing. He’ll crossfire, has deception … he’s got something where they don’t pick up his fastball and are always late.”

A third Dominican right-hander, Seranthony Dominguez (3-0, 2.02), has been a big part of the rotation as well and has won three times in six starts but is currently sidelined with shoulder soreness. An MRI returned a clean report.

“The first three or four weeks we were ridiculously good," Fultz said. "We’ve had a few bumps in the road since then, but we’re getting the job done.”

Zach, not Francis Ford
Zach Coppola has a famous Hollywood last name, but the Clearwater corner outfielder has spent 2017 making a name for himself with his defense, at the plate and on the bases.

Coppola, 23, was 5 for 12 with two runs scored in the St. Lucie series, including Sunday’s lone run. He made a pair of outstanding run-saving catches in the outfield over the weekend and raised his average to .346, second to Chris Paul (.351) of Fort Myers.

“Zach has been doing a great job as a leadoff hitter,” Williams said of the Iowa native. “He gets big hits, bunts, but the thing for me is he does something every night to help you win, whether it’s a bunt hit or a great diving play in left-center. He’ll throw a guy out or get a great dirtball read and score the winning run.

“He’s a very good baseball player who does all the little things.”

Good contributors
The Threshers (28-23) have sat atop the FSL’s North Division for most of the first half, but a series loss at St. Lucie over the weekend left them trailing Dunedin by one game after both clubs won Sunday.

Williams said his first season skippering the club has been highlighted by a full-team effort.

“It’s been a little bit of everything,” Williams said. “Early on our pitching was very, very good. Cole (Irvin) was really dealing (see more on Irvin). Dominguez, everybody was. We were getting the big hits, and our defense has been very consistent. Overall, we’ve just played good baseball.”

One standout playing good ball has been 5-foot-5 middle infielder Grenny Cumana, who went 7 for 10 in the series and made a spectacular catch-and-throw on the grass behind the bag while playing second base to rob St. Lucie’s Vinny Siena of an infield hit Sunday.

Tenacious P
Fultz said one immeasurable he likes in his pitchers is a bulldog-like tenacity that has them wanting the ball in key moments, regardless of previous outcomes.

“I don’t have to have the guy who’s always going to succeed in the big situation, but I always want the guy that wants to be out there in that situation. To me, that’s the selling point,” he said. “It’s not always being successful; it’s always wanting to be in that situation, which is a big plus.”

Fultz said his favorite battler was Jamie Brewington, a teammate of his in the San Francisco farm system, who appeared in 40 games over two MLB seasons.

“He went right after hitters, and it was fun to watch,” Fultz said.

Andrew Knapp's long homer a bright spot for skidding Phillies as rookie pushes Cameron Rupp

Andrew Knapp's long homer a bright spot for skidding Phillies as rookie pushes Cameron Rupp

Hidden in the Phillies' sub-par Sunday was one bright spot: Andrew Knapp.

The young backup catcher blasted a long home run into the Phillies' bullpen that gave them an early lead they would soon relinquish in an 8-4 loss to the Reds. The long ball comes on the heels of Knapp's first back-to-back starts earlier in the week.

"The more playing time you get, the better you feel," he said. "That's just the way it goes. I'm just trying to take my opportunities and take advantage of them. Unfortunately, we didn't win today, but the more at-bats I get, the better I feel."

The 25-year-old rookie was handed a prime opportunity in the second inning with two men on and one out. Starter Scott Feldman put him behind 0-2 with consecutive fastballs and tried to put him away upstairs. Knapp stayed poised and laid off both pitches, waiting for a mistake.

And the mistake came with a belt-high curveball that Knapp barreled 434 feet for a three-run homer.

"I wasn't really looking for it," he said. "I knew he liked to throw it with two strikes. It was kind of in the back of my head. But I was just looking for something out over the dish. He was pounding me in, but I was going to make him beat me away. I thankfully got that one out in front a bit."

Knapp is now 53 at-bats into his MLB career and has an impressive .264/.371/.509 batting line with three home runs and seven RBIs. He's played well enough to push starting catcher Cameron Rupp for more playing time and earn himself some extra starts beyond day games after night games.

"I feel good," Knapp said. "I'm learning a lot. Each at-bat in itself is its own thing and you can't really have much rollover. At the same time, the more I get in there, the better I feel and the more experience I get. So I feel good so far."

Rupp has been solid at the plate, although he dealt with some issues defensively last week. As Knapp got consecutive starts, Rupp sat out both Tuesday and Wednesday against the Rockies. He rebounded with a three-walk game Thursday afternoon.

With Knapp swinging the bat well, manager Pete Mackanin hopes it will only push Rupp to level his game up.

"Competition is great for pitchers and for position players and I think it's good," Mackanin said. "Knapp hit that home run today. He's been swinging the bat pretty well, catching pretty well and that's only, in my opinion, going to make Rupp better."

On Friday, Mackanin said he would give Knapp more playing time, looking to possibly split starts between Rupp and Knapp at four and three starts, respectively, per week. That's how it worked out during this past homestand.

The manager was unsure what the upward limit on Knapp's starts could be, but he was pleased about his catching situation despite the team's overall issues.

"Cam hasn't been swinging the bat that well lately, but they're both going to get playing time," Mackanin said. "Cam will get the brunt of the playing time. For me, it's a great situation. Now we have two guys that we think a lot of."