Phillies

Rockies' Pat Neshek encouraged by Phillies' Cameron Rupp, Andrew Knapp to throw slider more

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Rockies' Pat Neshek encouraged by Phillies' Cameron Rupp, Andrew Knapp to throw slider more

DENVER — Pat Neshek left the Phillies with more than good memories. 

He departed throwing a far more effective slider to left-handed hitters, thanks to the urging of catchers Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp.

“I'm throwing it a little bit harder than I do to righties, but it's got just downward movement,” said Neshek, whom the Phillies traded to the Rockies on July 26 for three minor league prospects. “Before for me, it was just fastballs and changeups. Now I got something I can run in on them, and a lot of them just look outside and try to slap (the ball) to left. It's been a very effective pitch for me.”

The well-traveled Neshek, whose unconventional sidearm delivery is unique, said he toyed with the harder slider to lefties last year in his second season with the Astros but never really had confidence in it. Early this season, however, that changed because of Rupp and Knapp.

“I didn't really know them, they didn't know me, but they were adamant it was a great pitch, so I just trusted them,” Neshek said. “Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp with the Phillies kind of just kept calling it, and I think it gave me confidence.”

Neshek said when he was with the Cardinals in 2014, catcher Yadier Molina called a lot of changeups, and Neshek “felt like that was my pitch to left-handers.” But thanks to Rupp and Knapp, Neshek said he began attacking lefties with an 82-85 mph slider, up from 81-83 mph last year.

“With the right-handers, he starts it off the plate and throws it off that same fastball plane and keeps it riding out of the zone,” Rupp said. “Whereas with a lefty, you can’t do that or you’re going to hit him. It’s got more depth, and it’s shorter. When you see that, his fastball at 91-92 (mph) plays harder. And then when you throw the movement in with that slider, it’s a pitch you got to be ready to hit.

“He kind of places it instead of letting the ball ride out of the zone and be a chase pitch. It’s not a big chase pitch for him to lefties. He gets a lot of swings. The ball’s in the zone. He gets a lot of weak contact.”

Entering this season, left-handed hitters were batting .237 (117 for 494) against Neshek. They are 13 for 62 (.210) against him this year.

The trade to the Rockies means Neshek has left cozy Citizens Bank Park but will make repeated appearances at mile-high altitude in spacious Coors Field.

“Offensively the ball's flying a lot more in Philly, but more runs are probably going to be scored here,” Neshek said. “It's a bigger ballpark here. So you want to control the running game, limit the base hits and the balls that go in the gaps. But as far as balls flying out, Philly wasn't fun. I mean it was in your head all the time. Same with places like Cincinnati and Atlanta; they're tiny ballparks. For me, I'm losing one tiny ballpark and going to an offensive ballpark. Houston was the same way. Down the left field line was a joke.”

In 43 games with the Phillies, Neshek went 3-2 with a 1.12 ERA with five walks and 45 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. While that performance piqued the Rockies’ interest, it also eased any concerns Neshek might have had about pitching regularly at Coors Field.

“Philly, when I got traded there, I was like, 'Oh my God,' ” Neshek said. “And to have a good year there, it kind of just tones that down a little bit.”

Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

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Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

It's not clear whether the Phillies will add a starting pitcher before opening day, but surely they would like to.

General manager Matt Klentak “is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective,” manager Gabe Kapler said on Tuesday. “That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation.”

Klentak has kept a close eye on the trade market, but has found the prices (i.e., the young talent that must be surrendered) for top, controllable starters to be prohibitive.

He has kept a close eye on the free-agent market, but the length of contracts that top pitchers are looking for has given him pause.

For months, the Phillies have distanced themselves from speculation that has connected them to elite level free-agent pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

But with spring training less than a month away and both pitchers still unsigned, the Phillies would at least have to consider both pitchers if their asking prices experience a January thaw.

Six or seven years? No way.

Three years? Hmmm. Let's talk.

The Phillies are hosting a number of their young players this week. Rhys Hoskins, Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Leiter and Nick Williams were all in town on Tuesday.

Williams has set his sights on making the National League All-Star team in 2018.

“That's what I'm shooting for,” he said at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday. “I think I had a pretty good year last year. I'm shooting for more now. I don't think being an All-Star is shooting too high.”

Williams, 24, hit .288 with 12 homers, 55 RBIs and an .811 OPS in 83 games, mostly in right field, with the big club as a rookie last season.

To give himself the best chance of surpassing those numbers — and achieving his goal of making the All-Star team — Williams has spent the offseason in Austin, Texas, working with personal trainer Jeremy Hills, a former University of Texas football player.

Williams is working hard on agility, which will help him in the outfield and on the base paths.

And guess who one of his daily workout partners is?

Free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta.

Back in Austin, between reps and protein shakes, Williams has occasionally talked up Philadelphia as a potential landing spot to Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner who will turn 32 in March.

“He loves it here,” Williams said of Arrieta, who, as a free agent and a Scott Boras client, is astute enough not to rule out any team, particularly one as deep-pocketed as the Phillies. “He has told me he likes working with young guys. I'm like, ‘All right, come on up.’ But I'm not writing the check. I don’t know what he wants. I don’t really dig into that because I'm not really in his position.”

Williams smiled.

“I hope to be one day,” he said.

Williams marveled at Arrieta's work ethic in the gym.

And he expressed gratitude for the kindness and generosity Arrieta has showed him.

“He's bought a lot of my protein shakes,” Williams said.

Time will tell if the Phillies add a starting pitcher to the group that already consists of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and other youngsters. The hunch is they will, though it's unclear what the magnitude of that talent will be. Klentak's search for an arm likely won't stop with the addition of one pitcher and it will likely continue through July. And beyond. The quest to build a championship-caliber staff never stops.

“The pursuit is very real,” Kapler said of Klentak's search for pitching. “I have a lot of trust that we'll either go in [to spring training] with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we're better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look because we thought that we could go acquire that piece a little bit later on this season or in the offseason next year.”

Rhys Hoskins on 'surreal' rookie year, position switch, expectations

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Rhys Hoskins on 'surreal' rookie year, position switch, expectations

For a couple of weeks in August, Rhys Hoskins might have been Philadelphia's most popular athlete. Fans marveled at the nightly power display that the young slugger put on in the middle of the Phillies' batting order. Carson Wentz and the Eagles had not yet begun their magnificent season. Hoskins was the man in town.

It hit him one night after a game. He stopped in Center City for some late-night eats. A man and his young son approached. They offered their congratulations and asked for an autograph.

"That's when I was like, 'OK, this might be something that's about to be part of my life,' " Hoskins said. "But it was cool because I used to be that kid."

Hoskins was back in the area Monday night for the 114th Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Dinner. He was honored with a special achievement award for a torrid major league debut in which he clubbed 18 homers and drove in 48 runs in just 50 games last season.

Hoskins was raised in Sacramento, California but moved to San Diego this offseason. His 18 homers in 2017 were the most ever hit by a player who did not make his season debut until after Aug. 1. Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers after returning from the Korean War in 1953, was the previous record holder.

Williams was a San Diego native.

"Surreal," Hoskins said of that 50-game stretch last season and the buzz that has followed him into the offseason. "Indescribable."

He is now a recognizable face, a signature talent, in a sports-crazy town.

And he's ready for it.

"Enjoy it," he said. "Take it by storm and enjoy it. It's supposed to be fun and that's probably the best approach to take. I think my thought is what happened may never happen again. Tomorrow something might happen. Tomorrow I might never be able to step on a baseball field again. So I think you have to take it by storm and enjoy it.

"If you had asked me a year ago if I would be walking down the streets of Philadelphia and would people recognize me I'd probably laugh at you. But that’s where we are now.

"It's just a testament to how passionate the people of Philadelphia are and how much they love their sports."

Hoskins will report to Clearwater for spring training at the end of this month. He wants to get a head start so he can ramp up his workouts in left field. A first baseman by trade, he began playing the position occasionally last season. He will move there full-time in 2018 as newly signed Carlos Santana takes over at first base.

Hoskins got a 30-game taste of left field last year. He is OK with the move.

"Having Carlos is exciting for the city and exciting for the team," Hoskins said. "We add a guy who has proven himself in this league for five or six years at a very high level so to kind of insert that into the lineup and into the clubhouse, especially with such a young team — I think we're going to feel that exponentially throughout the year.

"Left field is a challenge. It's a challenge that I'm definitely excited about. I started to feel more comfortable out there toward the end of the year.

"I think I can be just fine out there. I'm not necessarily going to be a Gold Glover. I just don’t have the speed that some guys out there do, especially in today's game. But I think I'll be just fine and contribute to the team defensively as much as I can and make the plays that I'm supposed to."

Hoskins will turn 25 on March 17. He projects to bat cleanup in new manager Gabe Kapler's lineup.

"He's energized, intense and thorough," Hoskins said of the new skipper. "He can captivate a room. I'm curious to see how that dynamic works in the clubhouse. I think he's going to be a pretty exciting guy to work with."