Phillies

Crucial season awaits pitching prospect Mark Appel, the Phillies' tantalizing curiosity

Crucial season awaits pitching prospect Mark Appel, the Phillies' tantalizing curiosity

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Almost four years after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and 15 months after the Phillies took a shot on him in a trade with the Houston Astros, Mark Appel remains a tantalizing curiosity.

The right-hander's professional career has been defined by unfulfilled potential, but that strong-bodied, 6-foot-5, perfect pitcher's frame and power arm are just too mesmerizing to give up on.

This is a big season for Appel. He will turn 26 in July, and he's healthy after having surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow in June. With that, the Phillies sent him off to minor-league camp on Tuesday. In three weeks, he will embark on the season that he hopes will finally land him in the major leagues.

"Everybody kind of makes their own opportunity based on how they play," Appel said. "So, that's where my focus is. I know if I go out there and do the little things that I've been doing the last eight or nine months since surgery and keep this progression that I've been on, that I'll be there in no time.

"It's just a matter of being able to go out and prove that I'm healthy, prove that I can give the team five, six, seven innings, keep the team in the game. I think that's really where my head is at. It's just a matter of going down to minor-league camp and doing my thing."

It's not out of the question that Appel ends up in the bullpen some day. For now, the Phillies want him to continue to get starter's reps so he can work on his primary flaw -- control. He projects to open the season in the Triple A rotation. He opened there last season and went 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his first four starts. He followed that by going 0-3 with an 8.27 ERA in his next four starts before being shut down with the elbow problem. For the season, Appel worked 38 1/3 innings. He struck out 34 but walked 20.

Appel spent a month in big-league camp this spring and pitched in four Grapefruit League games. In nine innings, he gave up seven hits and five runs. He struck out 10 but walked four.

Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure is one of those folks who marvel at Appel's raw talent. He saw progress this spring.

"I'm seeing more quality in his pitches," McClure said. "For me, it looks like he's going forward and that's a big thing. He's not scattering balls all over. His misses are not as frequent and not as bad as they were. I'm very pleased where he's at and he should be too. He's made good progress coming off surgery."

McClure believes Appel will pitch in the big leagues someday. He said the pitcher's goal for 2017 should be to throw "the least amount of pitches per inning as he can."

In other words, fill the strike zone.

Appel knows he needs to improve on that.

"I think I've taken kind of big strides this spring," he said of his control.

He mentioned having some chats with Larry Andersen, who served as a guest pitching instructor early in camp. Andersen stressed the importance of an aggressive mindset and pitching with confidence, two qualities that Appel has not always shown.

"Larry and I had some conversations about the mentality of pitching and really just having confidence and not trying to throw a strike but knowing you're going to throw a strike," Appel said. "There's kind of a difference in knowing it in your head and kind of believing it in every fiber of your body. It makes a difference when you're on the mound."

On the Phillies' depth chart of upper-level pitching prospects, Appel ranks behind Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson, who both made it to the majors last season. He's probably also behind Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta and Ricardo Pinto. Drew Anderson is a pretty hot name, as well.

But Appel still has the physical tools that led the Astros to draft him No. 1 overall in 2013, the tools that continue to make him a tantalizing curiosity, a lottery ticket the Phillies hope to cash in on. It's just that it's getting to be time for him to start making his move.

"I think I've had times when I've been antsy, but there's a lot of patience with me," Appel said. "I think I've experienced a lot of things. I've experienced times of just pitching really poorly, my performance has lacked. I've had times when I've been injured and there have been setbacks -- last year was obviously a big one for me. I think in that sense there's always the hope, and the dream and the goal of getting to the big leagues, but you can't do it overnight. So I think it's just a matter of staying the course, staying the process."

Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

usa-jose-altuve-astros.jpg
USA Today Images

Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve embraced Justin Verlander as confetti rained down. An improbable thought just a few years ago, the Houston Astros are headed to the World Series.

Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Astros reached the World Series for only the second time by blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Verlander, the ALCS MVP, and fellow Houston ace Dallas Keuchel will have plenty of rest before the World Series begins at sweltering Dodger Stadium.

"I love our personality," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We have the right amount of fun, the right amount of seriousness, the right amount of perspective when we need it. This is a very, very unique group. To win 100 games and still be hungry is pretty remarkable."

The Astros will try for their first World Series title, thanks in large part to Altuve, the diminutive second baseman who swings a potent bat, and Verlander, who switched teams for the first time in his career to chase a ring.

Four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees on consecutive nights after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first crown, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

"This city, they deserve this," McCullers said.

Clutch defensive plays by third baseman Alex Bregman and center fielder George Springer helped Houston improve to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and become the fifth team in major league history to capture a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four. A noted curveballer, McCullers finished up with 24 straight breaking pitches to earn his first major league save.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

"I know people are going to talk about how we didn't win many games on the road. There were some other teams that haven't won many games on the road, either. We just happened to run into a very good team that just beat us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The Astros also eliminated New York in the 2015 postseason, with Keuchel winning the AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.

CC Sabathia entered 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double. He snapped an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night in a 7-1 win.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York went 1-6 on the road this postseason.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who lost to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS exactly 13 years earlier.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh.

With McCullers in charge, the Astros soon closed it out.

"It's not easy to get here. And I don't take any of this for granted. And this is what we play for," Verlander said. "These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career when you look back, winning these games, just playing the World Series. Hopefully winning the World Series."

MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

usa-justin-verlander-game-6.png
USA Today Images

MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON — Justin Verlander remained perfect with Houston, pitching seven shutout innings when the team needed him most, and Jose Altuve homered and drove in three runs as the Astros extended the AL Championship Series to a decisive Game 7 with a 7-1 win over the New York Yankees on Friday night.

Acquired in an Aug. 31 trade, Verlander has won all nine outings with the Astros. And with his new club facing elimination in Game 6 against the Yankees, he delivered again.

After striking out 13 in a complete-game victory in Game 2, Verlander threw another gem. The right-hander scattered five hits and struck out eight to improve to 9-0 with 67 strikeouts since being traded from Detroit. George Springer helped him out of a jam in the seventh, leaping to make a catch at the center-field wall and rob Todd Frazier of extra bases with two on and Houston up 3-0.

Game 7 is Saturday night in Houston, with the winner advancing to the World Series against the NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers.