Phillies

Reinvented as a dominant reliever, Joe Blanton enjoying his 'second career'

Reinvented as a dominant reliever, Joe Blanton enjoying his 'second career'

It's been eight years. 

Eight years since the Phillies made an underrated deadline trade to acquire 27-year-old Joe Blanton from the Oakland A's. Blanton went 4-0 with the Phils, won a title, won a game in that 2008 World Series and also homered. It was a magical year for him.

Two years ago, Blanton thought his playing days were over. He had bottomed out in 2013 with the Angels, going 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. The next year, he was released in spring training. He latched on with the A's for a second stint but hung up his cleats after two starts in Triple A. At that time, he was at peace with ending a 10-year big-league career. 

One successful comeback and two years later, Blanton, now a Dodgers reliever, returned to Citizens Bank Park for the first time as a visiting player.

"I went to Oakland and was in the minor leagues in Sacramento for two starts (in 2014) and I just decided I wasn't performing the way I needed to," Blanton, now 35, said prior to Thursday's game. "Being sent down for the first time, my family wasn't there, three little kids at home, I just felt like it wasn't for me anymore. 

"When I made the decision to come back I felt like I could do it, but at the same time I knew it was a long way away. It was one more try. I don't want to say for closure because I didn't really need it, I was fine with who I was. But I wanted to give it one more try and if it didn't work, it didn't work."

It did work. 

Blanton has resurrected his career, reinventing himself not just as a bullpen arm, but as one of the game's best relievers. His opponents have hit .167 this season. He has a 0.89 WHIP in 61 innings. His swinging strike rate is 14.2 percent, well above the MLB average of 10 percent.

Since joining the Pirates in a midseason trade last year, Blanton has posted a 2.18 ERA in 78 relief appearances with 98 strikeouts and 28 walks in 95⅓ innings.

He's a different guy. He's slimmer, going from 252 pounds all the way down to 205 at one point. He has more velocity and he throws more breaking balls. Blanton's average fastball velocity during his days with the Phillies was in the 89 mph range. This season, it's a career-high 91.2 mph. 

"I think earlier in my career if I was in the bullpen I probably would have thrown harder," Blanton said. "Out of the bullpen you get matched up more than as a starter. If you want to compare starting vs. relieving, starting you have to face the whole lineup — whether you match up well or not, you have to start on your day. You have to give and take a little more as a starter, you have to keep track of your pitch count, maybe give up a few more hits. 

"Now I only have to face a guy once a game usually. I have a starter's repertoire in the bullpen. Most guys have maybe one or two pitches. So I can kind of go with everything instead of as a starter trying to hold your slider back until the later innings or maybe not use it as much. You're able to do that. As a starter you have to establish your fastball. Out of the bullpen you don't have to do that as much."

On Wednesday, Blanton, in his first game at Citizens Bank Park as a non-Phillie, struck out Aaron Altherr on a tight, sharp slider. The Phillies knew to expect breaking balls from him. Blanton has thrown his slider 38 percent of the time this season, his fastball 31 percent and his curveball 20 percent. That's 58 percent sliders and curveballs, more than double the frequency of his previous career-high usage of those two pitches. It's made his entire repertoire better, including a fastball that used to get hit out of the ballpark too often.

When Blanton recorded two outs to end the seventh inning Wednesday and again Thursday, there wasn't nearly as much fanfare for the former Phillie as there was earlier in the week for Chase Utley. But these fans don't forget his contributions in 2008 and 2009 (12-8, 4.05 ERA), nor does he.

"It was pretty cool," Blanton said. "Once you're out there, it's just pitching. But it definitely felt familiar from being out there so many times. You know the environment. I think the first time you step on the field is pretty cool. Thinking back, winning the World Series, all the good players I played with here."

That stage of Blanton's career is over. So are his days as a starter. Unlike most starting pitchers who are moved to the bullpen, Blanton doesn't maintain the desire to pitch every fifth day. He's having success in this role and it's where he wants to stay.

"I think I spent my time as a starter. I think I've been there, done that," Blanton said. "There were points last year when I thought I could still start and still kind of wanted to do it. But I think more toward the end of the year and then definitely through this year, I realized that's a thing of the past. I had my time starting. Now it's kind of my second career and I've really enjoyed it. 

"I'm proud of what I did [starting]. A lot of people had better careers and a lot of people had worse careers. But I'm proud of what I did, I did it for a long time. I'm happy with where I'm at right now.

"Who knows how long this road will last, that's kind of the mentality I've taken — every game could be your last. I tried to tell myself all of last year and as much as I can this year to just enjoy every moment because you don't know when it's gonna be your last. I already thought I had my last moment and didn't."

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Updated, 10 p.m.

Now that is the version of Jake Arrieta the Phillies need, the kind that can solidify a rotation. 

Arrieta pitched a gem and the Phillies hit two homers in a four-run fourth inning to beat the Braves 5-0 in Saturday's series opener at Citizens Bank Park.

The win gets the Phillies to .500 at 4-4. The Braves are 9-6.

J.T. Realmuto and Jay Bruce both homered in the decisive fourth. Realmuto's was a bomb to the last row of seats in the first deck in left field. It was his fourth already this season, in 73 fewer plate appearances than it took him last year.

"He's really turned into a premium offensive player over the last couple years," Bruce said of his teammate.

Bruce's came on the first pitch against Braves right-hander Kyle Wright. He started in left and Andrew McCutchen was the DH. The Phils have benefitted from Bruce's extra bat in the lineup with a couple of homers.

Arrieta cruised

It was a strong outing from Arrieta, who was locked-in and efficient and sounded encouraged after the game. He put only two Braves on base over his first five innings on a pair of singles. He struck out six and his sinker sat 93-94 mph. 

Arrieta pitched out of a potential jam in his final inning, finding fortune in the form of a Dansby Swanson line drive right at shortstop Didi Gregorius, who threw to second to double off Adeiny Hechavarria.

Through two starts, Arrieta is 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA. 

"What I've seen in the first two starts is extremely impressive in its execution," manager Joe Girardi said of Arrieta after the game. "He was really sharp tonight again. It's really encouraging. I feel really good about what he's going to do."

Arrieta pitched through an elbow injury last summer. He did not have the proper feel of his breaking ball and it affected his entire repertoire. There were nights when he didn't seem to know where the ball was going. 

Different story so far in 2020.

“I have more weapons at my disposal than I’ve had the last couple years," Arrieta said. "I feel like I’m gonna be able to maintain the feel of my stuff deeper into games.”

Gotta love those three-run dingers

Bruce's three-run homer in the fourth inning was the Phillies' fourth in eight games this season. Realmuto has two; Bryce Harper and Bruce have one apiece.

The Phils have hit 12 homers in their eight games. They entered Saturday night ranked first in the majors in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging and fourth in OPS. The offense would be receiving more credit if it wasn't overshadowed by the bullpen's early-season meltdowns.

J.T. is on fire

An inning after hitting his fourth homer, Realmuto flew out to the scoreboard in right-center, just missing another one. He lined out to sharply to center in his final AB. Even the outs are crushed right now.

Realmuto has been the Phillies' best offensive player so far. They needed him to start fast and he has. Last season, Realmuto was still hitting in the .250s in July with an OPS in the mid-.700s. He drove the ball over his final 200 plate appearances to finish with a solid offensive year.

Over his last 55 games dating back to last July 27, Realmuto has hit .305/.356/.634 with 17 home runs and 46 RBI.

"J.T.'s super talented. He does so many things for this team," Girardi said. "As good as he is offensively, he puts his heart and his soul in defense and calling games. J.T.'s a player you don't have to worry about being prepared. That's what every manager wants.

"I hope he stays really hot for like three months."

Bullpen holds up again

Jose Alvarez, Tommy Hunter and Deolis Guerra combined for three scoreless innings and allowed just one baserunner. The Phillies' bullpen has allowed two runs in eight innings in its last two games, two steps in the right direction.

Before the game, pitching coach Bryan Price talked about the need for the "second layer" of Phillies relievers to step up with so many doubleheaders on the schedule.

Harper does it with defense

Harper, who reprioritized defense prior to a strong 2019, continues to impress in the field. He made this diving catch in the fifth inning Saturday. He also went 2 for 4 with a double.

The Phillies' defense has not been an issue so far. They've committed just three errors in eight games, none from their new left side of the infield. Jean Segura bobbled a hot shot to third base in the first inning but recovered to get Swanson by a step at first base. It was the kind of play that could have altered the game early if it wasn't made, especially ahead of Freddie Freeman.

Twin bill on Sundee

The Phillies play a seven-inning doubleheader against the Braves Sunday beginning at 1:05 p.m. Game 2 will begin 40 minutes after Game 1. 

Vince Velasquez will start in one of the games and top prospect Spencer Howard will make his MLB debut in the other.

The four-game wraparound series ends Monday night when Aaron Nola faces Atlanta.

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What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

Spencer Howard is coming. The Phillies said everything they could say Saturday without making it official that Howard, their top prospect, will start one of the two games of their doubleheader Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi really left things up to interpretation before the Phillies' series opener against the Braves, saying the nod would go to a young right-hander with the initials S.H. A few minutes later, he said that he was "not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard."

Plenty of hype surrounds the 24-year-old Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick in 2017. He has the tools of an ace.

"Big fastball, really good slider-changeup combination, emerging curveball," pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday in a 15-minute Zoom call that was almost entirely about Howard. "And he throws strikes, he competes well, controls the running game. He's a very polished young guy with a big arm. 

"Quite often when you find guys with velocity, it takes time for them to figure out command or how to sequence their pitches. I just think he's a polished kid. I think he's ready to come up and help us."

That description of the typical young pitcher with velocity who takes time to figure it out applies to the pitcher Howard is poised to eventually replace in the Phillies' rotation: Vince Velasquez. Velasquez, at 28, doesn't have much rope left. He has a 4.75 ERA in more than 100 appearances as a Phillie (93 starts). He's allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings as a Phillie, easily the highest home run rate of any pitcher in Phillies history with as many innings.

The Phillies could still end up starting Velasquez throughout the 2020 season because they have six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, i.e. six instances when they'll need a sixth starting pitcher.

It will be interesting Sunday to compare and contrast Howard and Velasquez in the two starts. It would not be a surprise to see Howard strike out eight Braves over five scoreless innings. Nor would it be a surprise if he struggled in his first start against a potent big-league lineup.

"He has deception, he pitches with a high fastball but can also create good downward angle," Price said. "I think getting the first one under his belt — hopefully there are many more to come in Philadelphia — is something we're all excited to see."

Howard was a late bloomer. He did not start games until his junior season at Cal Poly. His freshman season, he was one of the last players to make the roster. In the span of just a few years, his velocity rose from the upper-80s to the 90s to the point that he touched 100 mph in the minors.

"One of the great things about the sport of baseball is that not everybody is a prodigy. Not everybody is Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, on the map at 15, 16, 17 years old," Price said.

"I think in Spencer's case, he had to have that skill set in there. The aptitude and the feel. And so as the arm strength built, he had enough feel for pitching to make some really significant strides in a short period of time."

The next step: A start in South Philly against the NL East favorites.

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