Phillies

After a winter of challenges, Gabe Kapler wants to focus on the players

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After a winter of challenges, Gabe Kapler wants to focus on the players

CLEARWATER, Fla. — A controversy stemming from his handling of a situation during his time as an official with the Los Angeles Dodgers put Gabe Kapler under the heat lamps recently.

But on the first day of his second season as Phillies manager Wednesday, Kapler put all the attention on his players.

“I addressed that situation publicly in detail,” he said, referring to the 1,300-word response he authored after a Washington Post story questioned how he handled the reporting of an alleged assault in 2015. “This is a camp where I really want the attention and the focus to be on our players. So that's not a question I'm going to be addressing.”

Kapler did concede that the offseason was a challenge.

Three months before the Post report, he lost his home in the wildfires around Malibu, California.

“There is no question that there were some challenges this offseason,” he said. “The way I dealt with those challenges was to focus my attention on others. I think those lessons are applicable to us as a team. When you want to achieve something that matters, you can’t do it on your own, you need to lean on others for support and you need to support those leaning on you. I think that’s the way I approached this offseason, that’s the way I’m going to approach spring training and that’s how we will approach the season.”

Kapler was pressed as to whether the situation involving the alleged 2015 assault would cause him a credibility issue in the clubhouse he now oversees.

“We spent a lot of time this past offseason communicating,” he said. “I communicated frequently with our players. I communicated frequently with our staff. We put a lot of processes and practices into play to enhance that communication and I think the way to address that best is through the actions that are coming up. I think that we’re going to be able to see that the relationships in the clubhouse are intact and strong.”

But there will be changes in the clubhouse.

Kapler was asked if there was one thing he would change in Year 2 and he did not hesitate with his answer.

“We're going to have some boundaries in the clubhouse that are a little bit stronger,” he said. “Last year, I stressed that we wanted players to be able to be themselves and to be celebrated for who they were, and we're going to continue to stress that. At the same time, we're going to implement systems and processes and boundaries that make it clear that we are here to work every single day. Spring training is going to be the jumping-off point for that. Everything we do is going to have a higher level of intensity. Our attention to detail is going to be stronger. And there are going to be some boundaries put into place. Not that I'm going to implement a set of rules different from what we had last year, but I will say that we are going to raise the bar for the behavior across the board.”

Kapler declined to give examples of where he will run a tighter ship.

“There's nothing specific that I can point to,” he said. “I can just tell you that it's an area of emphasis for us.”

Tighter ship. More emphasis on detail. These are understandable modifications considering what happened last season. The Phils were in first place, 15 games over .500, in early August. They lost 33 of their final 49 games and finished with their sixth straight losing season. In September, general manager Matt Klentak used the word “miserable” to describe the final weeks of the season.

Kapler has moved on.

“We’re in spring training 2019,” he said. “I’m not going to say I don’t remember how difficult the end of 2018 was. We’re just going to use it as motivation every single day. Not getting the job done, not completing the job, is incredible fuel to have better practices, to be more focused on the small details of the work that we do in spring training.”

Kapler has more to work with in 2019. The Rhys Hoskins Outfield Experiment is over. He is back in his comfort zone at first base. Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson and J.T. Realmuto — all proven talents — have been added and more could come in the form of a Manny Machado, a Bryce Harper, a Mike Moustakas, a Dallas Keuchel or a Craig Kimbrel. Yes, the Phillies are in on everybody in their quest to break a seven-year postseason drought.

With an improved roster comes heightened expectations and with heightened expectations comes more pressure on the manager.

Winning early and often will keep the focus where he wants it — on the players and not on him.

“I think it’s important to continue to shine the light on the players that are here in camp,” Kapler said. “We have an improved roster across the board. I think it’s important that we get off to a good start because that’s what’s good for the Philadelphia Phillies. My focus, my attention, will always be on winning every night, putting our team in the best position to do so, and then coming back to do it all over again the next day.”

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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