Phillies

Charlie Manuel on Phillies: 'We're a ways off'

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Charlie Manuel on Phillies: 'We're a ways off'

It’s funny how quickly things have changed.

Once, the Phillies held one of the longest postseason droughts in all of baseball. From 1994 through 2006, the Phillies did not have one playoff appearance. And mostly, they weren’t even close. In team history, the five straight division crowns from 2007 to 2011 are unprecedented as the club has made just 14 postseason appearances in 129 seasons.

So as the Phillies limp into the dog days with a 48-56 record and a ready-to-move roster, it appears as if the old days are back with the Phillies.

Barring an unforeseen late-season surge, the Phillies will miss the playoffs for a second straight year. With a payroll that ranks up with the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers and spoiled by the recent success, a two-year drought takes some getting used to.

But according to manager Charlie Manuel, recapturing the not-so-old glory is going to take some work.

“I think we’re a ways off,” Manuel said before Tuesday night’s game against the Giants at Citizens Bank Park.

Take your pick as to why this is the case. The aging core, a roster loaded with starting pitching but not much experienced bullpen help, injuries and a dearth of prospects ready to contribute in the big leagues. As Manuel says, watch the game.

“I’ve known what we’ve had for the last two years,” Manuel said.

Manuel knew it, but there isn’t much he’s been saying. During the lost weekend in Detroit where the Phillies were swept by the Tigers and outscored 24-5 in three games, Manuel pointed out how managers aren’t asked for much input when the front office puts together the roster.  

Before Tuesday’s game against the Giants, Manuel lamented the lack of bullpen talent.

“We have a young bullpen that needs experience and it takes a top-flight team to win the division and be able to go to the World Series,” Manuel said. “That's what we're talking about here, right?”

Certainly, that’s one part of it. But it’s tough to pin the entire woebegone season on the relievers. During the current eight-game losing streak, the Phillies have batted just .202 and scored 14 runs. That comes to 1.75 runs per game, which, combined with the 6.19 ERA by the pitching staff, shows just how tough it’s been.

Plus, Manuel’s lineup in Sunday’s loss featured just three players that were in the opening day starting lineup. Where’s the consistency?

“Age goes into it, injuries go into it, that's what I've been talking about,” Manuel said.

Age and injuries. Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay stand out in that regard. Meanwhile, outfielders Ben Revere and Dom Brown have been out as well. However, even if the Phillies had been healthy all year, Manuel still isn’t sure if it would have been enough to keep the Phillies in contention.

“There's a lot of ifs in there,” Manuel said. “We’ve got Brown coming (back), we’ve got Howard, if we can get him well. He's gotta get well, he's gotta get healthy and then he's got to get into top-notch shape. We've got Halladay -- if we had Halladay, then yeah, we’d get better. But there's a lot of ifs there.

“Now I have to (ask), if we can we count on people? Count on the issues that we had getting better, and also performing at their peak. When the year starts, I like every one of our players. I've always said that and I still like our players. But I also see how we play. Let's don’t fool ourselves. How we play is how we play.

“Now if we play like we did on the road trip, we're not going to be very good. We have to play better.”

How to accomplish that is the big question. Manuel says the Phillies need to get better “at a lot of positions.” He also said that the Phillies need to improve beyond what anyone is talking about.

Perhaps Manuel is suggesting that the Phillies need to get better at positions that aren’t seen in the box score?

“What do I think when I watch our games? What do you see? You tell me what you see every day, day in and day out,” Manuel said. “I see that we have to get better.”

It’s hard to disagree with that. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Phillies were in third place in the weak NL East, 11½ games behind the Braves. So yes, the Phillies need to get better.

How to get better is a different issue.

Another gem for Vince Velasquez, who's finally conquering his league-worst pace

Another gem for Vince Velasquez, who's finally conquering his league-worst pace

BOX SCORE

Vince Velasquez has been locked in since mid-June, which has been crucial for the Phillies with Nick Pivetta headed in the other direction.

The Padres couldn't touch Velasquez Sunday night, managing just two hits and a walk in his seven shutout innings (see first take). That's been a common theme for Velasquez over his last six starts, a span in which he has a 2.38 ERA and .134 opponents' batting average.

These last two starts in particular, Velasquez had pitched with a faster pace and more efficiency. Against the Mets and Padres — granted, the two worst offenses in the NL — he's thrown an average of just 13.2 pitches per inning.

He's picked up his pace on the mound, too, which was necessary. Velasquez entered Sunday night's game with the slowest pace in between pitches in all of baseball at 27.5 seconds.

"I think that's what has pretty much been the big turnaround for me," Velasquez said after his gem. "Finding that tempo and pretty much driving it through the game."

"That was as good as he's been all year," manager Gabe Kapler said. "The tempo, the pace and the energy levels were right on.

"It's the combination of keeping his rhythm and his pace but not losing control of his body. It's somewhere right in the middle. ... When he gets runners on base, he's done a really good job of holding runners on. The pickoff (of Freddy Galvis) was notable but just as important, he does a great job holding the baseball. As a runner at first base, you have difficulty timing your jumps and before you know it, your body shuts down naturally.

"Across the board, I think he's been an exceptional athlete for us on the mound."

The Phillies are finally seeing signs of growth from Velasquez. He's looked like more of a pitcher and less of a thrower lately. He hasn't been running the insanely deep, foul-ball fueled counts while in search of a strikeout.

Velasquez's next start will be a more accurate gauge of whether he's truly turned a corner because it comes at Great American Smallpark in Cincinnati against a potent Reds lineup.

Despite the weakness of the Padres' offense, Velasquez did win a high-pressure battle in the sixth inning Sunday against former All-Star Eric Hosmer, by far the most dangerous hitter in San Diego's lineup. With two men on, two outs and the Phillies up 1-0, Velasquez battled back from a 2-0 hole to induce a shallow flyout to left field.

The Phillies went on to win 5-0 but that was the biggest spot in the game, the kind of moment when a well-placed knock from Hosmer could have changed the complexion of the rest of the night.

"He really has seemed to flourish when we've asked him to pitch a little bit deeper into games and he's earned the right to do that," Kapler said after Velasquez's longest start of 2018. "Two strong outings in a row, very encouraging for Vinny."

Two years and three months ago, Velasquez made his best start as a major-leaguer against the Padres, striking out 16 in a three-hit shutout. He did it with a big, upper-90s fastball that missed bat after bat.

On Sunday, Velasquez attacked in a different way. He started exactly one-third of the batters he faced with a first-pitch breaking ball or changeup. He could have been as fastball-happy as ever against a Padres team on pace to strike out more than any club in the history of baseball, but mixing it up Sunday made sense. The Padres have been one of the majors' worst teams vs. non-fastballs, hitting .202.

Pitching, not throwing.

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Phillies option Aaron Altherr and Mark Leiter Jr. to Triple A Lehigh Valley

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Phillies option Aaron Altherr and Mark Leiter Jr. to Triple A Lehigh Valley

Aaron Altherr is headed to Triple A, where he’ll get a chance to play every day and rebuild some confidence after struggling for nearly four months.

Altherr, who batted fifth in the Phillies’ opening day lineup and was a big part of their outfield arrangement to start the year, was optioned to Lehigh Valley following Sunday’s doubleheader. Last season, Altherr hit .272 with 19 homers and 65 RBI in 412 plate appearances.

Reliever Mark Leiter Jr. was also optioned to Triple A, with corresponding roster moves coming Monday.

In his lone plate appearance Sunday against the Padres, Altherr came in as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning. After working a 3-1 count, he swung through two fastballs to strike out.

Altherr is hitting .171 in 248 plate appearances, with 12 double plays. He has the highest double-play rate of any player in the majors this season. 

Against lefties, Altherr is hitting just .164.

Leiter had a difficult outing in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader, allowing six hits and three runs in two innings of work. For the season, Leiter has a 5.74 ERA in 11 appearances. 

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