Phillies-Nationals thoughts: Mark Leiter Jr. faces playoff-ready lineup

Phillies-Nationals thoughts: Mark Leiter Jr. faces playoff-ready lineup

Phillies (53-88) at Nationals (87-54)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies lost their third straight game Friday night in an 11-10 defeat highlighted by a key Odubel Herrera miscue in the field and a spirited comeback attempt against the Nationals' bullpen (see story). In Game 3 of the Phils' four-game set with the Nationals, Mark Leiter Jr. will take the mound Saturday against journeyman RHP Edwin Jackson. Here are some thoughts.

• The Phillies have had some embarrassing moments during this losing-filled season, but Herrera's play in the third inning may have taken the cake. He completely misplayed a ball in center field to give the Nationals an inside-the-park grand slam (see video).

It's certainly not the first inside-the-parker the Phillies have given up this season, but it was just a case in which Herrera did everything you can't do in that situation. He went in right away, hesitating before realizing that his only chance left would be to leap, and then missing the ball, which quickly rolled to the wall. It was not what the Phils need to see from their one player locked up long term.

• As for the positives from the defeat, there are a couple of pretty obvious ones. Nick Williams drilled a three-run homer as part of a four-hit night. But as usual, the steady rookie could be overlooked because Rhys Hoskins continues to mash.

Before he picked up his two hits, he took Max Scherzer on a ride with a 13-pitch at-bat before striking out. That's not something you see out of a typical player a month into his MLB career.

And then he hit his 13th home run. Oliver Perez shouldn't be facing Hoskins, but the Nationals had a six-run lead, so they stuck with their lefty specialist and paid with a three-run shot that cut their lead in half. 

• Onto tonight's pitching matchup, Leiter had the worst start of his career last time out. He was just two starts removed from seven innings of one-hit ball against the Miami Marlins and had a 3.52 ERA over his previous 46 innings before facing the Mets on Monday at Citi Field.

Lasting just 10 outs, Leiter gave up nine runs, eight earned, on nine hits as the Mets plastered him. He allowed two home runs after 13 2/3 innings of homer-less ball in his last two starts. Facing the same team 25 days earlier, he held them to one run in five innings while striking out seven. 

The 26-year-old righty threw two scoreless innings against the Nationals earlier this season but has yet to start against the division rival. 

• Jackson has been in the big leagues since 2003, when he broke in the majors as a 19-year-old starter for the Dodgers. In 15 big-league seasons, he's played for 12 different teams, including multiple stints with the Nationals. He earned an All-Star appearance in 2009 and has been traded six different times.

This season, he started with the Baltimore Orioles' Triple A affiliate and made it to the majors. After appearing out of their bullpen and allowing seven runs (four earned) in five innings, he was designated for assignment and soon picked up by the Nationals.

And surprisingly enough, he's been pretty good. In nine starts, he's pitched to a 3.29 ERA in 54 2/3 innings. He toned down his walk rate while not allowing the plethora of hits that have plagued him in recent seasons. His 1.8 homers per nine is his worst rate since his second season. He doesn't strike out too many batters, fanning 40 in his time with the Nationals.

He's coming off a lackluster outing against the Brewers. In 5 2/3 innings, the righty allowed two home runs, leading to five runs (four earned). The five runs were the most he's allowed this season.

• The Phillies are now 5-9 against the Nationals this season despite outscoring them, 73-69, in the 14 games. A lot of that is because of a 17-3 win in April, but the Phillies have also played the Nats tough. Eight of the nine losses have been by two or fewer runs. 

• On Friday, the Nationals gave a glimpse at both how they can be dangerous in the postseason and why they might be a quick out. 

How they can be dangerous is simple: The offense. With Trea Turner healthy, they now add his speed and hitting (three hits, including a double and a home run Friday) to the powerful trio of Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon in the middle of the order. Howie Kendrick has also continued to tear the cover off the ball in Washington. It's not hard to imagine that offense breaking through against strong pitching staffs in October.

But their pitching staff is a question mark. Sure, they won despite Scherzer having an off outing. But Scherzer being off is something they can't afford next month. It's part of how they lost Game 5 of the NLDS last year. And the bullpen behind him simply can't be trusted. Perez won't be facing powerful righties like Hoskins, but they don't have a fearsome back end. Shawn Kelley, who they hoped would be a high-leverage option this season, allowed three runs without getting an out Friday and now has a 7.99 ERA.

• You'll notice that I didn't mention Bryce Harper in their bevy of offensive threats. His return from injury could decide the Nats' fate and whether they can finally win a postseason series. His presence further extends that lineup and he's the type of talent that can win you a series by himself. If he doesn't come back, the Nationals may not have the offense to outslug the similarly stout Cubs. 

• Back to the Phillies, Freddy Galvis not starting on Friday shouldn't necessarily be a surprise but it is an important statement. With his lineup card, Pete Mackanin announced that the team would be prioritizing J.P. Crawford's development. As they should. They need to see Crawford man short in the big leagues so they can determine their plans at the position moving forward (see story).

That doesn't mean Galvis should be shoved off the position, but the team needs to see Crawford in action, plain and simple. This month isn't about wins and losses and the team needs to instead look towards development.

• Triple A Lehigh Valley lost, 4-2, in Game 2 of its five-game playoff series with Scranton Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees' affiliate. The teams are tied 1-1 through two games.

Scott Kingery went 1 for 4 with a walk while Brock Stassi 1 for 3 with an RBI and a walk. Dylan Cozens was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. Coming in as a reliever, Mark Appel threw a scoreless inning despite walking three batters.

A mechanical adjustment 'kick-started' Rhys Hoskins' career

USA Today Images

A mechanical adjustment 'kick-started' Rhys Hoskins' career

The spectacular beginning of Rhys Hoskins’ major-league career can be traced to a conversation he had with two members of the Phillies’ player-development department back in September 2014.

Hoskins had arrived in the Phillies organization earlier that year as a fifth-round draft pick out of Sacramento State University. That summer, he made his professional debut at Williamsport of the New York-Penn League. He hit .237 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in 70 games.

Phillies instructors liked what they saw of Hoskins that summer. They loved the potential. But something was missing.

“He didn’t consistently get his weight back,” director of player development Joe Jordan recalled. “His legs weren’t in his swing every night. The timing, the bat speed and swing path were all good, but they weren’t consistent every night.”

After the Williamsport season ended, Hoskins reported to the Florida Instructional League in Clearwater. He was hitting off a tee, by himself, in a batting cage early one morning when Jordan and Andy Tracy, the team’s minor-league hitting coordinator, approached him with an idea.

“What do you think about making a change to your stance?” Jordan asked Hoskins.

Hoskins, thoughtful, respectful, mature, coachable, eager to learn and just as eager to succeed, was all ears.

“I was open to anything,” he said.

On that September day in 2014, during a conversation in a batting cage in Clearwater, Hoskins’ left leg kick was born.

He has used it to trigger his swing ever since.

And …

“It’s made all the difference in my career,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

The Phillies, off to a 14-7 start, enjoyed an off day Monday. That provides us with a neat little checkpoint on Hoskins’ big-league career, which is just 71 games old, less than a half-season. He arrived in the majors on Aug. 10. Since then, he ranks first in the majors in RBIs (67) and pitches seen (1,376), third in walks (56), fourth in OPS (1.038) and times on base (126), and sixth in extra-base hits (36). His 22 home runs rank fifth in the majors in that span behind J.D. Martinez (27), Giancarlo Stanton (25), Aaron Judge (23) and Matt Olson (23).

Hoskins was no slouch at Sacramento State. He was the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year as a junior in 2014, the year the Phillies drafted him. But even his college coach admitted last summer that the leg kick had taken Hoskins to a new level (see story).

There are a number of benefits to the leg kick, Hoskins said. Among them: It slows him down a little. If he gets his leg up early, it allows his eyes to work and that helps his pitch recognition. It helps his rhythm and timing. It gets him on his backside and gives him a loading mechanism that translates into power when he fires through the ball.

“I had no prior experience with it before Joe and Andy mentioned it,” Hoskins said. “I had no clue what I was doing with it. I was super spread out in my stance. I would get to a point where I would start my swing, stop and have to start it again. Those precious milliseconds are huge. I was late a lot. A lot. The room for error that I had was slim to none.”

When Jordan and Tracy first proposed the leg kick, they asked Hoskins to exaggerate it.

“The first thing Joe said was, ‘Try to hit your chin with your left knee,’” Hoskins recalled.

Hoskins experimented with the size of the kick for a couple of weeks in batting practice and in games. Then one day he hit a home run in a game against the Yankees’ instructional league team.

“The pitcher was throwing pretty hard and I was able to get to a ball that was in and I hit it for a home run,” Hoskins said. “I said to myself, ‘Hmmm, this is probably something to stick with.’”

Jordan and Tracy encouraged Hoskins to use the leg kick during his wintertime workouts after the 2014 season. He did. He made it part of him and his bat carried him on a quick trip through the Phillies’ minor-league system and into the middle of the big club’s batting order.

Amazing what one little bit of coaching can do when it finds a talented and willing student.

“Our entire staff watched Rhys that first summer and came up with a great plan for him,” Jordan said. “Those guys did it and Rhys nailed it. He took it home that winter, worked at it and it’s become his normal ever since.”

What Nick Pivetta's emergence means for Phillies

What Nick Pivetta's emergence means for Phillies

The Phillies knew what they had with Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola, Tommy Hunter and (injured) Pat Neshek, and to a lesser extent Hector Neris and Luis Garcia.

What they did not know entering the season was how Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez would pitch, or how the end of the bullpen would shake out.

With 21 games in the books, they've received key contributions from several emerging pitchers and that is a major reason why they're 14-7 despite a .231 team batting average

Pivetta had another strong start Sunday, making one mistake and limiting the Pirates to two runs over 6⅓ innings. In five starts, he has a 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and he's struck out 28 batters in 28 innings while walking four.

Over his last eight starts dating back to last September, Pivetta has an ERA of 2.00 on the dot.

Even the most optimistic Phillies observers couldn't have envisioned such a fast and consistent start for Pivetta in Year 2.

"He's still carrying over what he did in spring training, which is pitch to the top of the zone and the bottom of the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said after Sunday's win. "The north-south effect with his fastball-curveball combination. He's mixing in a slider. Right-handed hitters can't tell if it's a curveball or a slider. They're showing you that with their swings."

Pivetta misses a lot of bats with high fastballs that hitters just can't catch up to. He also has a sharp breaking ball, which was apparent from his first start last season. The main issue was his control. He had seven starts last season with four or more walks. So far in 2018, he's a different guy.

"I think we saw glimpses of it last year with a little bit less consistency," said Andrew Knapp, who has caught all five of Pivetta's starts. "Right now, he's really confident in what he's doing. It's kind of becoming an every-time-out thing where he's really pounding the strike zone and he's got four pitches he can throw in any count.

"The fastball is electric. When the other hitters feel the fastball, it opens up the off-speed."

Pivetta will probably not finish the season with an ERA under 3.00, but the Phillies aren't asking him to be an ace. They're asking him to be a consistent mid-rotation piece, and his upside could allow him to become much more than that.

It could also change the ceiling of the 2018 Phillies.

"I think it does. I think it does," Kapler said. "I think it's the emergence of Nick. I think it's the emergence of Velasquez. I think it's relievers we can go to that have sort of behaved like the guys you depend on every day in the seventh, eighth and ninth. 

"We have Garcia, (Adam) Morgan and Neris as the guys coming out of camp who we knew were going to perform in those situations. Now you have (Tommy) Hunter coming back. You've got [Pat Neshek] not that far away. And you have (Yacksel) Rios, (Victor) Arano and (Edubray) Ramos performing like this. It's very encouraging."

That's a pretty deep bullpen in addition to a solid rotation. Hunter made his Phillies debut Sunday and needed just eight pitches in a 1-2-3 eighth inning. His cutter, which he threw 20 percent more often last season than he did the prior three, will make him a weapon against left-handed batters.

As for Velasquez, he'll have a chance Tuesday to kick it up another notch against a very good Diamondbacks lineup that may get power-hitting lefty Jake Lamb back in time for the series.

It's still April, but the Phils have the chance to make a little statement with a series win over the 15-6 D-backs.

"It would be awesome," Kapler said, "for us to go out there and tackle Arizona the way we did Pittsburgh."