Hector Neris

Yanking Nola backfires as Phillies suffer opening day walk-off loss

Yanking Nola backfires as Phillies suffer opening day walk-off loss

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ATLANTA — The Phillies opened their 136th season, and the Gabe Kapler era, with a demoralizing 8-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park on Thursday.

The Phillies took a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning, but could not hold it after Kapler pulled cruising starter Aaron Nola after 68 pitches.

The Braves tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the eighth and won it on a three-run homer by Nick Markakis with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The home run came against Hector Neris.

Nola had given up just three hits when Kapler lifted him after 5 1/3 innings with a runner on second base. The rookie manager asked his bullpen to get 11 outs, but the unit could not do it without surrendering the lead and ultimately losing the game.

The bullpen was charged with seven of Atlanta’s eight runs.

Hoby Milner gave up a two-run homer to Freddie Freeman in the sixth and Adam Morgan and Edubray Ramos combined to allow three in the eighth as the Braves tied the game. Ozzie Albies stroked a leadoff homer off Morgan in the eighth. Morgan walked Freeman and the Atlanta slugger came around to score on a passed ball/error combination by catcher Andrew Knapp.

The Braves tied the game on a base hit to center by Preston Tucker against Ramos. It was curious that veteran Pat Neshek, who signed a two-year contract with the club in December, was not in the game in the eighth inning. The Phillies used five relievers in the game and Neshek never got in (more on that here).

The Phillies took an early lead on Atlanta starter Julio Teheran when Rhys Hoskins’ first swing of the season produced an opposite-field RBI double in the first inning.

The Phils pushed their lead to 5-0 in the top of the sixth inning on a leadoff solo homer by Cesar Hernandez, a bases-loaded walk by Maikel Franco and a two-run single by Knapp.

At 24 years and 298 days, Nola became the youngest Phillies opening day starter since Dennis Bennett in 1964.

Nola earned the start with a strong showing last season. His 3.54 ERA ranked 20th among major-league starters.

Odubel Herrera, the Phillies’ best offensive player the last three seasons, did not start and was not happy about that (see story). He did enter the game in the bottom of the eighth for defense as Kapler subbed Hoskins out of the game.

Check back for reaction from the clubhouse.

Questions Phillies face as spring training nears its end

Questions Phillies face as spring training nears its end

BRADENTON, Fla. — Less than a week before opening day, there are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding the Phillies.

About the only thing known for sure is that Aaron Nola will start Thursday in Atlanta. The right-hander made his final spring tune-up Friday afternoon against the Pirates.

Some of the questions that need to be answered before the Phillies pack up and leave Florida on Tuesday include:

• When will Jake Arrieta join the rotation? Will it be April 2, 3 or 4 in New York? Will it be during the team’s first homestand, possibly April 7? Arrieta threw 31 pitches in his first spring start Thursday. A bullpen session over the weekend and his next start, likely 50 or so pitches on Tuesday, will offer team officials a better idea on when he’ll be ready.

• Who else will be in the rotation? Nothing has been announced, but Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta appear to be locks with Nola and eventually Arrieta. Zach Eflin could be the fifth starter, if the Phils use one the first time through the rotation. He could also piggyback with Arrieta in New York if the Phils wanted to get Arrieta going that early. Ben Lively and Drew Hutchison remain candidates to make the club as the fifth starter, should the Phils use one during the first 10 days of the season.

• Who's in the bullpen? Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Luis Garcia and Adam Morgan are locks. That likely leaves three openings. One spot will likely go to a lefty, Hoby Milner or Zac Curtis. Right-handers Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano seem to be vying for one spot and the final one could go to Lively or Hutchison. They are both stretched out and could provide the bullpen length that injured Mark Leiter Jr. would have.

• How about bullpen roles? Manager Gabe Kapler is not one to speak in absolutes. He is loath to define roles in his bullpen or batting order. He’s keeping options open and could assign roles on a nightly basis based on matchups and research that the team’s growing analytics department digs up. Neris went 20 for 20 in save chances while giving up just three runs in 19⅔ innings after June 27 last season. Logic would dictate that he'd be the closer. But will he be every night? Will Kapler use him in a matchup situation in the seventh inning some night? Time will tell. Same for batting order construction.

• Who will be on the bench? Infielder/outfielder Pedro Florimon has played well and looks like a lock. That leaves one or two openings, depending on how many pitchers the Phils open with. Veterans Ryan Flaherty and Adam Rosales were both granted their release. That leaves Jesmuel Valentin and Roman Quinn, both 40-man roster guys, as the two lead candidates. There might be room for both, depending on how many pitchers the Phils open with. It also would not be shocking to see the team send Quinn to Triple A to get more playing time. The Phils appear to be leaning toward carrying Andrew Knapp as their second catcher over Cameron Rupp, who has a minor-league option remaining.

How Phillies might optimize their lineup in 2018

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How Phillies might optimize their lineup in 2018

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CLEARWATER, Fla. – Phillies manager Gabe Kapler continued to experiment with different lineup looks Saturday. He used the bulk of his regulars in a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay. Starting pitcher Vince Velasquez batted eighth and shortstop J.P. Crawford ninth.

Several National League managers, starting with Tony La Russa when he was leading the Cardinals, and more recently Joe Maddon of the Cubs, have used this strategy. Pete Mackanin did it 35 times with the Phils in 2016.

Kapler could employ the strategy this season.

“We want more runners on base at the top of the lineup,” Kapler said. “Utilizing J.P.’s superior on-base skills — that’s the intent there. It’s possible that we will use a lineup like that during the season, and, like I’ve said numerous times, we don’t want to do anything for the first time in the season that we didn’t do in practice here.”

The strength of the Phillies’ batting order will be at the top where Kapler could go with Cesar Hernandez, Carlos Santana, Odubel Herrera and Rhys Hoskins in the top four spots.

“If you think about where we can do a lot of damage, it’s right at the top of our lineup,” Kapler said. “And it’s a possibility that either Santana or Hoskins is hitting in that two-hole, then it makes sense that we’d like to have J.P. standing on second or third base when those guys come up in the order. It’s not just J.P. It will be a personnel decision.

“But any edge that we can use to score more runs, we’re going to go after, even if it is just a minor edge, sort of that continual (quest for) value at the margins. We don’t want to leave any stone unturned. We’re going to continually look to optimize our lineup to score runs.”

Hector Neris gave up a three-run homer to David Olmedo-Barrera in the top of the ninth to take the loss.

Crawford was involved in a scary play when a piece of his broken bat hit him in the face. Kapler said Crawford was fine.

Velasquez was sharp with four scoreless innings. He gave up three singles, one of which was a routine ground ball through a shift hole. He struck out two and walked none.

The Phillies sent pitchers Ricardo Pinto, Enyel De Los Santos and Cole Irvin to the minors. Infielder Heiker Meneses and catcher Nick Rickles were also reassigned.

The Phils play a night game against the Orioles in Sarasota on Sunday night. Nick Pivetta will be the starting pitcher.