Improving Cesar Hernandez -- 'a really good player' -- leads Phillies' win

Improving Cesar Hernandez -- 'a really good player' -- leads Phillies' win


WASHINGTON -- This is what it looks like when it all goes right for the Phillies.

Well, at least most of it.

The Phils still aren't racking up big totals in the hits and runs column -- that 17-spot last week was pure Halley's Comet stuff -- but they got some timely hits, efficient pitching and excellent defense in beating the Washington Nationals, 4-2, and stopping a four-game losing streak on Saturday (see Instant Replay).

"Well, that was fun for a change," manager Pete Mackanin said after his team's first win since last weekend.

Jeremy Hellickson pitched seven innings of two-run ball and got the win when Cesar Hernandez smacked a tiebreaking, two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning. Hector Neris and Joaquin Benoit protected the lead with Benoit retiring three big Washington bats -- Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman -- to earn his first save of the season. After watching Jeanmar Gomez bob and weave and ultimately get knocked out of the closer role, Mackanin was ready for a peaceful ninth inning and Benoit provided it.

"He's a 14-year veteran," Mackanin said. "He's not scared."

In addition to the strong pitching, the Phils benefitted from several nice defensive plays, two by left fielder Howie Kendrick and one by shortstop Freddy Galvis. Hellickson gave up several long drives, but the Phillies' outfield played air-tight ball.

Hellickson's strong start marked just the second time in 11 games that a Phillies starting pitcher has gone seven innings. The starters averaged just five innings over the first 10 games.

"We finally got seven innings out of a starter," Mackanin said. "That makes it a lot easier."

Hellickson was upset as he left the mound after the seventh inning. He had given up a solo homer to Chris Heisey with one out in that inning and it tied the score at 2-2.

Enter Hernandez.

The Phillies' second baseman had a terrific day. He dropped down a bunt for a base hit to lead off the fourth inning and ignite a two-run rally against Washington's Tanner Roark, who dominated the Phils with 34 innings of three-run ball last season.

The eighth inning began with Hernandez's double-play mate, Freddy Galvis, taking a pitch off the foot from Washington reliever Joe Blanton. Two batters later, Hernandez took a 0-1 fastball that Blanton left over the middle of the plate and drove it out to right to break the tie and give the Phils a two-run lead that the bullpen locked down.

So with a ball that traveled maybe 40 feet and another that traveled 392 feet, Hernandez was the offensive star.

"I can't say enough about Cesar," Mackanin said. "He's been playing hard. He lays down a bunt for a hit then stepped up with the homer. It was huge. He's turned into a really good major league player."

Hernandez's evolution began June 21 of last season when he was benched for three days. At the time, he was hitting .248 with a .293 on-base percentage. The benching woke him up and after returning he hit .327 (13th best in the majors over that span) with a .421 on-base percentage (fifth-best) the rest of the season.

This winter, Hernandez, who turns 27 on May 23, added something valuable to his game. He got in the weight room and added 15 pounds of muscle, taking him to 180 pounds.

He likes the added strength.

"I can hit the ball harder," the switch-hitting second baseman said.

The Phillies have two good second-base prospects in the upper minors in Jesmuel Valentin and Scott Kingery, but Hernandez clearly is not about to give up his job without a fight. Through the first 11 games of the season, he's hitting .313 with three doubles, a triple, two homers and seven RBIs.

Hernandez has yet to attempt a stolen base. He had 17 steals last season but was caught 13 times.

"The one ingredient that he needs work on, and he's been working on it, is getting jumps to steal bases," Mackanin said. "He's got the potential to steal a lot of bases. He's been working on reading slide steps when to go when not to. The other night he was going to attempt to steal but the pitcher put a slide step on so he shut it down. That's a vast improvement. That's not easy to do, but once you do get the hang of it, it makes a difference."

Hernandez sure made a difference Saturday with a leadoff bunt to start a rally and a decisive home run late in the game.

"I was really happy because it got Hellickson the win," Hernandez said. "He threw seven good innings. It gave us a needed win."

MLB Playoffs: Javier Baez snaps out of funk to help Cubs avoid sweep

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MLB Playoffs: Javier Baez snaps out of funk to help Cubs avoid sweep

CHICAGO -- Javier Baez snapped an 0-for-20 skid with two home runs, Wade Davis hung on for a six-out save and the Chicago Cubs avoided a sweep, holding off the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 Wednesday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

Jake Arrieta pitched three-hit ball into the seventh inning to held the defending World Series champion Cubs close their deficit to 3-1. Manager Joe Maddon got ejected for the second time in this series in the eighth, and a packed Wrigley Field crowd watched Davis get Cody Bellinger to ground into a game-ending double play.

Maddon was heavily criticized for not using Davis during a 4-1 loss in Game 2. This time, the Cubs closer threw 48 pitches to finish the job.

Willson Contreras also homered for the Cubs. Bellinger and Justin Turner connected for the Dodgers, who had won a team-record six straight playoff games.

Game 5 is Thursday, with Jose Quintana pitching for Chicago against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (see full recap).

Tanaka, Yankees blank Astros to take ALCS lead
NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka pitched seven innings of three-hit ball and the New York Yankees finally solved Houston Astros nemesis Dallas Keuchel, beating the ace lefty 5-0 on Wednesday for a 3-2 lead in the AL Championship Series.

Gary Sanchez hit an RBI single off Keuchel and later homered to help the wild-card Yankees win for the third straight day at home and move within one victory of their first trip to the World Series since 2009.

The teams head back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday night, when Justin Verlander and the reeling Astros will try to regain their footing following an off day and force a decisive Game 7. Luis Severino is scheduled to start for New York.

Just days ago, Houston was up two games to none and appeared to be closing in on its second World Series appearance. But the Astros, like defending AL champion Cleveland before them, have been unable to put away these poised Yankees, who improved to 6-0 at home in this postseason in front of their cheering, chanting fans (see full recap).

MLB Playoffs: Yankees storm back for win over Astros to even ALCS

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MLB Playoffs: Yankees storm back for win over Astros to even ALCS

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge ignited a rousing rally with a home run, then doubled during a four-run eighth inning to spur the New York Yankees over the Houston Astros 6-4 Tuesday night and level the AL Championship Series 2-2.

The Yankees trailed 4-0 against starter Lance McCullers Jr. until Judge homered leading off the seventh. He tied it with a line drive that nearly left the park in the eighth and scored on Gary Sanchez's go-ahead two-run double off loser Ken Giles.

The Yankees have rallied from a second straight 0-2 series deficit -- they beat Cleveland in the Division Series by winning three in a row to take that best-of-five matchup.

Aroldis Chapman struck out two in a perfect ninth, and New York improved to 5-0 at home in the playoffs.

Masahiro Tanaka pitches for New York against Dallas Keuchel in Game 5 Wednesday and rematch of the opener, won by the Astros 2-1 (see full recap).

Dodgers on brink of World Series after shutout
CHICAGO -- Yu Darvish pitched sparkling ball into the seventh inning, Chris Taylor homered again and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs 6-1 on Tuesday night to open a commanding 3-0 lead in the NL Championship Series.

Andre Ethier also went deep and Taylor added an RBI triple in the fifth as Los Angeles set a franchise record with its sixth consecutive playoff win. Yasiel Puig had two more hits in another entertaining performance that included an impressive bat flip -- on a long foul ball in the first inning.

Looking for a four-game sweep and their 22nd NL pennant, the Dodgers will send Alex Wood to the mound Wednesday night at Wrigley Field with a chance to reach the World Series for the first time since their last championship in 1988. Jake Arrieta, eligible for free agency after the season, pitches for the Cubs in what could be his final start with the team.

Los Angeles was eliminated by Chicago in the NLCS last year, but this is a different group of Dodgers. The lineup is patient and pesky and the pitching staff is much deeper, especially since Darvish was acquired in a trade with Texas in the final minutes before the July 31 deadline (see full recap).