Phillies-Astros 5 things: Vince Velasquez faces his relentless former team

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Vince Velasquez faces his relentless former team

Phillies (34-62) vs. Astros (65-33)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies bring two straight series wins into what's sure to be a challenging three-game set this week at Citizens Bank Park against the AL-best Houston Astros.

At 65-33, Houston is on pace for 107 wins. The Astros' franchise record for wins in a season is 102 back in 1998 when they were promptly beaten in four games in the first round of the playoffs.

This Astros team is built to go much deeper into October.

1. Unstoppable offense
All the Astros do is score.

They lost MVP candidate Carlos Correa last week to a thumb injury that will keep him out about two months, but the lineup hasn't really missed a beat. The Astros scored 23 runs in their weekend series win in Baltimore.

The Astros have scored six runs or more 51 times this season. That's nine more occurrences than any team in baseball and 13 more than any team in the American League.

It helps a little bit playing the Astros in a National League stadium and ridding them of the DH, but Houston has a relentless lineup that just keeps coming and coming and coming.

Jose Altuve is hitting .358 with a .988 OPS, 28 doubles, 15 homers and 21 steals. He could end up as the AL MVP.

George Springer is their dynamic leadoff hitter who's hit .311 with a .978 OPS, 27 homers and 66 RBIs. He's already scored 82 runs and is on pace for 136, which would be the most for any player since Curtis Granderson in 2011.

Lefty Josh Reddick typically bats second or third to split up the right-handed hitters and he's been solid all year as well, hitting .301 with an .835 OPS.

Then there's utility man Marwin Gonzalez, who's hitting .320 with 18 homers and a .994 OPS.

And there's first baseman Yuli Gurriel, hitting .294 with 27 doubles, 13 homers and an .815 OPS.

Up and down the lineup, everyone has met or exceeded expectations. Even players like Brian McCann and Evan Gattis, who don't play every day, have been much better than league average at their positions.

It's going to be the toughest test of the season for the Phillies' pitching staff because this a deeper, more explosive lineup than the Nationals or Dodgers. There's no safe haven for a pitcher to catch his breath.

2. Velasquez draws his old team
Vince Velasquez faces the Astros for the first time since being traded to the Phillies in December 2015. (Ken Giles could also make his first appearance against the Phillies.)

Velasquez (2-5, 5.14) is coming off an impressive start in his return from the DL last week. In Miami last Tuesday, he allowed just two runs (one earned) on four hits over six innings.

It was the most efficient outing of the season for Velasquez, who needed 79 pitches to complete six innings. The Marlins put balls in play early in at-bats as opposed to fouling pitches off and running deep counts.

Tonight could be a different story. On top of being much better than the Marlins, the Astros are also a much more patient lineup that swings and misses less. Five different Astros starters have an on-base percentage of .345 or higher, and then you have someone like Nori Aoki, who barely ever strikes out.

Velasquez used his time off to clear his head after an uneven first half. He's been using his fastball up in the zone a lot lately and it's worked because he has enough velocity to blow it by hitters when it's at shoulder-level or above. It can be a dangerous game, though, because if Velasquez misses even slightly lower in the zone, he's inviting loud contact.

3. Deeper Phils lineup
The Phillies have scored five runs or more in seven straight games, their longest single-season streak since 2005.

How have they done it? There's not one reason — in fact, there are at least five.

Nick Williams' bat in the middle of the lineup has been the biggest factor. He came up on June 30 and has hit .309 with four homers, four doubles, two triples and 15 RBIs in 19 games.

Since June 3, Odubel Herrera has hit .331 with a major-league-leading 19 doubles.

Over his last 35 games, Maikel Franco has as many walks (15) as strikeouts.

And the icing on the cake has been the returns of Cesar Hernandez and Howie Kendrick to the top of the Phillies' lineup.

Hernandez has reached base in all six games and 12 of 30 times total (.400 OBP) since coming back from the DL.

Kendrick hit in all three games over the weekend to raise his season slash line to .353/.403/.471. He's missed 60 games but been extremely productive when he's played.

The Phillies haven't previously had more than half the lineup hitting at the same time. When you add in Tommy Joseph's power, Andrew Knapp's plate selection and Freddy Galvis' ability to hit one out in any given plate appearance, you have the makings of a better lineup.

The Phillies still own the majors' worst record, but there are actually four teams — the Blue Jays, Reds, Giants and Padres — with worse run differentials.

4. More than a funny name
The Phillies face 29-year-old Astros right-hander Brad Peacock, who is having a career year. In 22 appearances (10 starts), Peacock is 8-1 with a 2.49 ERA and he's struck out a whopping 93 batters in 68⅔ innings.

He's also allowed just one home run in those 68⅔ innings.

Peacock has used five different pitches this season but goes mostly fastball-slider-sinker with his heater ranging from 93 to 96 mph. He also has a changeup and curveball.

His opponents have hit just .156 against the fastball this season and haven't hit better than .225 against any of his pitches. He's simply dominated for this first-place team and could legitimately start one of their first three playoff games, especially if Lance McCullers Jr. continues to struggle.

The Phillies have seen Peacock twice, in 2014 and 2011. In the most recent start, he allowed eight runs and put 11 men on base in just five innings. He was a much different pitcher then.

5. This and that
• Luis Garcia's save Sunday afternoon was his first since 2015. Garcia has pitched a career-high 17⅔ scoreless innings, allowing seven hits and striking out 17 over that span. If Hector Neris falters one more time in the ninth inning, the closer's job could temporarily go to Garcia.

• The Phillies have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

• Giles has a 3.28 ERA this season with 21 saves in 23 attempts. He's struck out a career-low 10.3 batters per nine innings. In parts of two seasons with Houston, his ERA is 3.82 compared to 1.56 with the Phillies.

Jake Arrieta delights crowd, breaks bats

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Jake Arrieta delights crowd, breaks bats

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Spectrum Field was sold out, filled with fans clad in green and smeared with sunblock for a game against the Atlanta Braves on a festive St. Paddy’s Day.
But the main event Saturday took place several hundred yards away at the minor-league complex, two hours before the big-league game even began.
Five days after signing a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies, Jake Arrieta climbed atop a mound and threw a 31-pitch (two-inning) simulated game. Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro, Logan Moore and Andrew Pullin were the hitters. Andrew Knapp was the catcher. Players, coaches, minor-league instructors and manager Gabe Kapler all peeked in. Dozens of fans hugged the chain-link fence to get a look at the newest Phillie. They applauded when Arrieta took the mound and again when he finished.
“It was great,” the 32-year-old pitcher said moments after the workout ended. “There’s a lot of people out here. A lot of people are excited for the Phillies in 2018. We’ve got a lot of good things going on here. A lot of guys are healthy and competing, there’s a lot of youth. It’s a really fun time to be in this organization.”
Arrieta said he felt “really good physically,” not a surprise because he came into camp in terrific shape and had gotten to over 60 pitches in bullpen sessions back home in Austin, Texas. He threw all his pitches, including a couple of knee-buckling curveballs. He broke two of Alfaro’s bats, one with a sinker, one with a cutter.
“My goal was to throw everything in the arsenal for strikes and throw my off-speed pitches in and out of the zone where I could get some chases,” Arrieta said.
Arrieta did allow some contact, mostly ground balls.
Arrieta won the 2015 NL Cy Young Award with the Cubs. He won 22 games and had a 1.77 ERA that season.
A deceptive delivery is one of Arrieta’s strengths. He throws across his body and that crossfire action makes it difficult for a hitter to pick up the ball.
“It’s extremely deceptive,” Kingery said. “Every pitch is extremely deceptive. That’s what hit me. His curveball looks like it’s coming at your head then it drops.”
Arrieta is still hoping to be ready for the first week of the regular season, but the Phillies have not formulated a firm game plan. One thing is certain: They won’t rush him. They want him for the long haul. They could hold him back 10 days or so, allowing him to build more arm strength, and he’d still make 30 starts.
Arrieta expects to throw a bullpen session in the next day or two and try to get up around 60 pitches in his next outing. That could be in a minor-league game or in another simulated game.
“As long as we continue to get my pitch count up, I think I’ll be fine going into the season,” he said.

Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

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Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies signed free-agent right-hander Jake Arrieta earlier this week.

That's probably going to be the extent of their pitching additions for now.

Jerad Eickhoff is out until at least May with a strained right lat muscle and that creates a sizable hole in the Phillies rotation.

The hole is likely to be filled internally, according to general manager Matt Klentak. The team is not likely to make a run at Alex Cobb, who remains on the free-agent market.

"I doubt it," Klentak said when asked if he would look outside the organization to fill Eickhoff's spot. "I don't think we have to. I think a lot of our guys have shown very well in camp. They have gotten their pitch counts up, they're getting to the point of being fully stretched out.

"More than anything, I think we're going to have some tough decisions on figuring out who is in the rotation, who is in the bullpen, who goes into the Triple-A rotation, who goes into the Double-A rotation. We've got a lot of tough decisions to make on that front, but I don't think we're in a position where we have to go outside. We have a lot of candidates to take the ball at the big league level so we'll be fine."

Aaron Nola will start on opening day. Arrieta will be in the rotation, though he might need an extra week or so to get ready. Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta are likely to hold down spots. That leaves Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison and Tom Eshelman in the running for the final spot in the five-man rotation. Eshelman, strike-thrower extraordinaire, was the Phillies' minor-league pitcher of the year last year and projects to be in Philadelphia before long. However, it might not be at the outset of the season because he is not on the 40-man roster. Neither is Hutchison.

The Phillies do not need a fifth starter until April 11 so they could employ some creative roster construction until then. They could go with four starters and an extra reliever or bench man. Or they could bring an extra starter and "piggyback" him with Arrieta, a move that would allow Arrieta to make an abbreviated start during the first week of the season.

"There's a decent chance we open the season with somewhat of a non-traditional 25-man roster, not because we're trying to be cute but because we don't need the fifth starter until the 11th," Klentak said. "We're going to do whatever puts us in the best position to win those first 10 days of the season."

The Phillies made one transaction on Friday. They added utility man Pedro Florimon to the 40-man roster. He had a provision in his minor-league contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he wasn't on the 40-man roster by March 15. Florimon is a candidate for a spot on the Phillies' bench. The move doesn't guarantee that Florimon will win a spot, but it gives the team more time to evaluate him. To make room for Florimon, the Phillies designated infielder Eliezer Alvarez for assignment.

Florimon homered in the Phillies' 6-4 loss to Toronto in Clearwater Friday. Cam Rupp and Cesar Hernandez also homered. Velasquez gave up five hits and a run in 2⅔ innings. He struck out five.

In Lakeland, Pivetta allowed two runs over five innings as the Phils and Tigers played to a 6-6 tie. J.P. Crawford and Ryan Flaherty both homered.