Phillies

Maikel Franco appears to be latest unhappy piece in Gabe Kapler's lineup puzzle

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Maikel Franco appears to be latest unhappy piece in Gabe Kapler's lineup puzzle

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Maikel Franco arrived at Tropicana Field on Friday afternoon, looked at the Phillies lineup card and learned he would not start for the second time in three games.

Sitting in the clubhouse, the third baseman said he was not upset.

An hour later, his body language seemed to say something different.

During batting practice, Franco had about a 12-minute conversation with manager Gabe Kapler near first base. Franco, at times, appeared emotional as he spoke with Kapler. First baseman Carlos Santana, a fellow Dominican who has become a mentor to Franco, and Diego Ettedgui, the team’s Spanish language translator, were also involved in the discussion. Kapler, who is committed to “communicating relentlessly” with his players, initiated the conversation. He confirmed that the topic was about playing time.

Franco, one of the most personable and upbeat players on the team, brushed off a question about the conversation after batting practice. He said it was about something “outside of baseball.” Earlier, he had vowed to do his pregame work and be ready if called upon.

“Of course, I want to play but this is something I can’t control,” he said.

While it's commendable that Franco did not want to make waves, the matter once again illustrated how potentially unwieldy Kapler’s plan to get all of his players game reps may end up being. Franco sat in favor of Scott Kingery, whose play warrants being in the lineup. But Franco was hot, driving in 11 runs in the first four games of the team’s recent 5-1 homestand, before sitting out the fifth game and taking an 0-fer in the sixth game.

Among Phillies players, only Santana had a history (1 for 2) against Jake Faria, Tampa Bay's starter Friday night.

Kapler was asked if he saw something in the matchup that led him to sit Franco.

“Nothing specifically," he said. "We just really wanted to get a few other people in the lineup."

Franco will likely play Saturday night at third base or as the designated hitter. But then what happens to Kingery? Will he bump shortstop J.P. Crawford, who the team is committed to developing, someone in the outfield, or perhaps second baseman Cesar Hernandez?

It’s a nightly lineup puzzle for Kapler and 11 games into the season it has made some players unhappy, starting with Odubel Herrera on opening day, to Nick Williams and his computer lineup comment, and now to Franco, who despite saying otherwise, clearly isn’t happy to see his hot bat be placed in the fridge.

Kapler remains consistent: He says this can all work and that everyone is going to get the reps needed to be happy, healthy and productive.

Time will tell.

As for Franco, who had some rhythm going before his absence from the lineup …

“We actually think that he’ll have plenty of opportunities to get into those rhythms and he'll likely play in a nice little stretch going forward,” Kapler said. “It’s just a big puzzle and we want to make sure everybody is getting into the lineup. Every day we’re going to come to the ballpark and one person is not going to play that day and we understand that’s going to be tough and we’ll address with the players individually and remind them that they’re going to play a lot going forward and have opportunities to get into really good rhythms.”

Phillies learning how to win and Andrew Knapp has interesting reason why

Phillies learning how to win and Andrew Knapp has interesting reason why

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The Phillies have the look of a team learning how to win.

The rotation is thriving, the bullpen is getting better each game despite missing its two highest-priced arms, and the offense is alternating between putting up crooked numbers and doing just enough.

Friday's 2-1 win over the Pirates involved all three of those early-season themes: strong starting pitching, a bullpen that did its job, and timely hitting (see first take)

The Phillies are now 5-1 in one-run games, the best mark in the National League and second best in all of baseball, behind only the can't-lose Red Sox.

"I think it is an indication that a young team is coming together, that a young team believes in themselves when the game's on the line," manager Gabe Kapler said of the one-run wins.

"We've talked a lot in the clubhouse and in the dugout about how important it is for good teams to win one-run games. A couple things we talk about: one-run games and having big innings. We've done both of those things this season."

They sure have. On top of leading the NL in one-run wins, the Phillies also have 10 different innings this season with at least four runs. Entering Friday night, the entire rest of the National League had 56, which averages out to four per team.

Success or failure in one-run games is volatile and unpredictable. Teams that thrive one season sputter the next and vice versa.

But catcher Andrew Knapp had an interesting take on the early success in one-run games. The way he sees it, these habits were developed by this Phillies' core in the minor leagues. Remember, Double A Reading dominated when this core was there, and then Triple A Lehigh Valley did the same once the wave of promotions began.

"This group has won a lot of those games, even in the minor leagues. Playing together, we know how to win in a tough spot and stay in a game late," Knapp said. "For us, this is kind of something we've always done, but now we're doing it at the big-league level."

Two other fun Phillies stats to come out of Friday night:

• They've opened the season 7-1 at home for the first time since 1981.

• They've allowed one or no runs seven times now in just 19 games. Last season, it took exactly 80 games for them do it seven times.

Everything is going right for Phillies' rotation

Everything is going right for Phillies' rotation

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Knock on wood, spill some salt over your shoulder, enact whichever good-luck superstition you have. Because right now, everything is going right for the Phillies' starting rotation.

Through three starts, Ben Lively had experienced the worst results of the group, but he pitched very well Friday night and is showing some interesting signs in his second big-league season.

Lively allowed just one run to the Pirates over six innings, lowering the Phillies rotation's ERA to 2.67 since April 1. In just 19 games this season, the Phils have allowed one or no runs seven times already. Last season, it took 41 games just for them to do it once.

The Phils needed every bit of that run prevention in Friday's 2-1 win. Lively, Adam Morgan, Luis Garcia and Hector Neris shut the Pirates down, and Odubel Herrera tripled in Cesar Hernandez in the bottom of the eighth to untie the game and make the Phillies 12-7. 

They could have given Neris more breathing room, but with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth, both Rhys Hoskins and Herrera were caught stealing on the same play.

Lively has 21 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings, a big surprise given his lack of whiffs in the minors and his rate of 5.3 strikeouts per nine in the majors last season.

As for the rest of the rotation:

• Aaron Nola, who owns the lowest hard-hit contact rate in all of baseball (17.7 percent) looks like one of the best dozen starting pitchers in either league. He also seems poised to reach an even higher level in his fourth season.

• Jake Arrieta showed Cy Young stuff Thursday against the Pirates (see story), and through three starts he's 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA and .180 opponents' batting average. That early-season concern over his lack of swings and misses? Arrieta generated 14 swinging strikes against the Bucs with 10 just against his sinker — the most against his sinker in 56 starts.

• Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, the two wild cards entering the season, have combined for a 1.98 ERA and 0.88 WHIP with 38 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings the last three cycles through the rotation.

"Wild card" is the operative term, because if that duo continues to pitch like this, the Phils will have a legit shot at one.

The strikeouts, the weak contact ... we're not dealing with smoke and mirrors here. We're seeing what happens when aces like Arrieta and Nola meet expectations and young guys like Pivetta and Velasquez execute with more consistency. If Lively can just give the Phils quality starts, look out.

And aside from Arrieta, the rest of the Phillies' rotation will earn just under $2.25 million this season combined. That may be the most important number of all.