Phillies-Astros 5 things: Win or lose, tonight important for Aaron Nola

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Win or lose, tonight important for Aaron Nola

Phillies (34-64) vs. Astros (67-33)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

After being dominated by the AL-best Houston Astros on two consecutive nights, the Phillies attempt to avoid a sweep with their best pitcher on the mound.

1. Unstoppable offense
As Nick Pivetta was cruising through the first five innings last night, retiring 14 of the first 15 batters he faced, you just knew the Astros' offense wouldn't be dormant for long.

Sure enough, they put up a four-spot in the sixth and the game was over.

Last night's game was the 64th time the Astros have scored five runs or more this season. The league average is 45. The Phillies have done it just 34 times, fewest in the majors.

The Astros won easily despite missing Carlos Correa, George Springer and losing Alex Bregman early to an injury. There's a ton to like about this team, and being there to watch them on the field pregame the last two days, it sticks out how loose this team is. They should be — they're winning game after game after game and blowing out their opponents.

2. Nola time
Last night was a confidence-builder for Pivetta even though he allowed five runs because it showed him and the Phillies that when his slider is working and his fastball command is there, he can silence the best of offenses. 

Likewise, a successful start tonight from Aaron Nola would be huge, whether the Phillies win or lose.

Nola over his last six starts has gone 4-1 with a 1.70 ERA and .190 opponents' batting average. He's struck out 50 and walked 13 in 42⅓ innings. 

Nola dominated the Brewers his last time out — seven innings, one run, nine strikeouts — by utilizing all four of his pitches. He threw 31 two-seam fastballs, 27 four-seam fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs. He'll need a similar mix tonight because this Astros team hunts fastballs early in the count and is ready to pounce on any pitch that catches too much of the middle of the plate.

Nola typically pounds the strike zone, but tonight he might be wise to begin a few more at-bats than usual with a get-me-over breaking ball.

An at-bat that stuck out last night was Evan Gattis' in the sixth inning. He came up with two men on and one out, and Pivetta threw two 96 mph fastballs by him in a 3-1 count to strike him out. Both fastballs were in very hittable zones, but because Pivetta had Gattis thinking up there about all the sliders he saw earlier in the game, Gattis couldn't catch up to the heat.

That's really the only way you can keep a team like this off balance.

3. Franco back in his shell
It looked like maybe, finally, Maikel Franco was turning a corner right after the All-Star break, but alas. 

Franco is 0 for 16 with seven strikeouts over his last four games and just like that, he's back to hitting .224/.282.390.

Franco's batting averages by month this year: .213, .218, .224, .241.

His on-base percentages: .273, .274, .284, .299.

He has a .296 OBP the last two seasons, which a middle-of-the-order hitter cannot get away with unless he's hitting 40 home runs.

At a certain point, you have to accept that Franco is who he is. And with how wild and inconsistent his approach is, secondary factors like lineup protection don't really mean a ton.

4. Herrera to sit?
Pete Mackanin double-switched Odubel Herrera out of last night's game after a few questionable moments. Herrera bat-flipped a deep flyout, then later didn't run out a dropped third strike. Neither was completely out of the norm for Herrera, but Mackanin doesn't want to let every one of these events go so he pulled him.

"It's not a secret. It's talked about," catcher Cameron Rupp said (see story). "If you guys are seeing it, we are seeing it. It is what it is. We can say it to him, Pete has said it to him. It's no secret and when you don't do it, you put Pete in that position to do what he did.

"Pete is the manager and what he asks us to do, we're supposed to do. It's a team thing and one guy can't just not follow the rules. It's not the first time. It has happened before and that's something we don't want to see. We want him in the game. He's a good player. Pete doesn't ask a whole lot of us. He asks us to play the game hard and play the game the right way."

Herrera has been the Phillies' best hitter the last two months, batting .331 since June 3 with a majors-leading 20 doubles. But as Mackanin said last night, Herrera, too, is in a developmental phase. It's just the development is more mental than physical.

5. This and that
• Two perfect innings last night from Luis Garcia ran his scoreless innings streak up to 19⅓. Over that time, his opponents have hit .108. Garcia might get a shot at the closer's job in spring training 2018.

• Jose Altuve went 1 for 4 with a double and a run scored last night. How locked in is he? It was only the fourth time in his last 16 games he didn't have multiple hits. Altuve is hitting exactly .500 (47 for 94) since June 27.

• Earlier this week, Mackanin indicated Aaron Altherr could come off the disabled list today. We shall see. When Altherr does return, the Phillies will have some decisions to make in the outfield unless they end up trading Howie Kendrick before Monday's deadline.

• The Phillies face a hot pitcher tonight in Mike Fiers (7-4, 3.59). Fiers has struck out 20 in 14 innings his last two starts and helped to solidify the back of Houston's rotation. Carlos Gomez was the headliner of the trade two summers ago with Milwaukee, but it's Fiers who has had the most staying power with Houston.

Arrieta comes out strong, but Kapler remains vague on timetable

AP Images

Arrieta comes out strong, but Kapler remains vague on timetable

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Ever since Jake Arrieta flew into town on Air Middleton and raised expectations for 2018, Phillies officials have said they would take a methodical approach with getting him ready for the regular season.

The Phils followed that plan in holding Arrieta to two innings and 31 pitches in the right-hander’s hotly anticipated spring debut against the Detroit Tigers on Thursday.

“We had a very specific pitch count in mind and we feel like we executed the innings and the pitch count to a T,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We did not want to push the envelope at all. There’s no reason to. We’re focused on the long view.”

Arrieta struck out the first two batters of the game then allowed a solo home run to two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera, a double, a single and another run over the balance of his outing. He had hoped to go three innings, but understands the team’s plan.

“I'm on board with what these guys intend to do,” said the 32-year-old pitcher, who signed a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phils last week. “I know they have my health and the team's success over the long haul in mind. That's the most important thing moving forward.”

Kapler liked what he saw from Arrieta.

“It was a real positive outing,” he said. “We wanted to see health and strength. We saw both of those things and he threw strikes.”

Twenty-two of Arrieta’s 31 pitches were strikes.

Arrieta’s arm strength was impressive. He touched 95 mph on the stadium radar gun. He also threw several fastballs that registered 94. His fastball velocity had been a concern as it dropped from 94.9 mph in his Cy Young season of 2015 to 92.6 mph last season, according to PITCHf/x data.

“My timing and my delivery were nice,” Arrieta said. “The ball was coming out of my hand good. Even though I'm not particularly worried about velocity, the velocity was nice today. Sinking fastball was really good. I threw some good curveballs. The cutter wasn't necessarily great, along with the changeup. But those will come with repetition.”

Arrieta said he had “a ton of nervous energy” before the start.

“Now that it's over, I take a deep breath and I remember what it feels like to be in a game situation,” he said. “Umpires, crowd. It felt great. I'm healthy. The ball is coming out good. To get the first one out of the way — even though it is a little bit later — it's a good sign.”

Kapler continued to play things close to the vest with Arrieta’s timetable. What is clear, however, is that Arrieta will get one more start in Florida before camp breaks on Tuesday. He could build to around 50 pitches in that one and be ready to start in New York on April 2, 3 or 4. If the Phils decide that Arrieta needs two more outings to prepare for the regular season, he could debut on April 7 at home against Miami. Either way, he lines up to make 30-plus starts.

Phillies' surprise honor for David Montgomery

Photo: Miles Kennedy

Phillies' surprise honor for David Montgomery

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies officials were conducting a meeting Thursday morning on the executive level of Spectrum Field to discuss plans for an expansion to the minor-league complex.

Just before 9:30 a.m., Dave Buck, the club's executive vice president, asked the group to take a walk over to the complex to look at some of the proposed changes.

It was all a ruse, a little ploy to lure David Montgomery to the other side and to an honor that left even the hardest of baseball men with a tear welling behind their sunglasses.

The Phillies named their indoor training facility in honor of Montgomery in a moving 30-minute ceremony that was attended by ownership, front office officials, many of the team's scouts and every player — including 175 minor leaguers — coach and manager in the organization.

Montgomery, who became club chairman in 2015, knew something was up when he saw the players assembled in uniform in the bullpen at the minor-league complex.

"I saw Odubel (Herrera) standing over there and thought, 'He's at the wrong field,' " Montgomery said after the event. "The next thing I know, Dave Buck is pushing me into the middle of this.

"I was stunned. I'm overwhelmed by what the organization has done."

Montgomery joined the Phillies' sales department in 1971 and eventually rose to club president in 1997. His contributions include a lucrative television deal, Citizens Bank Park and the 2008 World Series title. 

His love for the Phillies started way before that.

"My first memory is going to Connie Mack Stadium when I was about five," Montgomery said. "We had linoleum in our porch in the back in our house in Roxborough. I used to try and slide on the linoleum the way Richie Ashburn would slide into the bases. Then at age 24, I'm literally working with and sitting next to Richie in a cubicle at Veterans Stadium.

"I've just been so fortunate. I've had the opportunity to work for the team I rooted for in the city I've lived in and loved my entire life."

John Middleton, the team's managing partner, spoke during the ceremony. He described Montgomery as "a baseball man" and told the players that the state of the art facilities that they work and train in were the result of Montgomery's vision and commitment to player development. The Carpenter Complex minor-league facility has grown substantially since it was first planned and brought to life in the late 1960s by the late Paul Owens, the legendary Phillies executive for whom the entire complex is named.

Lifelong Phillies Roly deArmas and Larry Bowa spoke from the heart about how Montgomery always put respecting others first.

"David, you are the Phillie Way," Bowa said.

A banner emblazoned with the words David P. Montgomery Baseball Performance Center was unfurled. Montgomery looked at it with a tear in his eye.

"It's not about structures, though I couldn't be more honored," he said.

"It's about people."