The Bryce Harper off-day debate wears on as Phillies' offense goes silent again

The Bryce Harper off-day debate wears on as Phillies' offense goes silent again

Tuesday was a quiet night for the Phillies, save for a scare in the top of the sixth inning.

Bryce Harper, who is struggling mightily at the plate, made two more impact plays in right field, sliding catches in foul territory. The first, to lead off the sixth, left him shaken up and limping. As Phillies fans held their collective breath, manager Gabe Kapler and trainer Scott Sheridan went out to check on Harper, who promised them he was OK after banging his knee.

He proved he was OK two plays later when he made almost the exact same catch. That makes four sliding or diving catches for Harper in the Phillies' last three games.

That was the positive. The negative, again, was a hitless, multi-strikeout game for Harper, who is down to .219 on the season. 

"I think he's just pressing a little bit, under a lot of pressure to perform," Kapler said after the 6-1 loss. "It's just not there for him right now, but you don't bet against that character. His kind of toughness plays long term. He's everything you want in a teammate and everything you want representing your club."

The topic of whether Harper needs a day off came up again. Harper has played all 41 games this season and would ideally like to play 162. There is a school of thought that resting him could give him the recharge he needs. 

But there isn’t any sort of proof it would benefit Harper and it wouldn’t benefit the Phillies. Having Harper in the lineup gives the Phillies a better chance to win than not having him in the lineup, whether or not he’s in a funk. 

Maybe if the Phillies had an actual off day, they could give Harper a rest the day before so he had 48 full hours off his feet. But they don't have another off day until May 27.

Kapler just isn't convinced that sitting a healthy Harper will be beneficial.

"It's something I will continually talk to Bryce about but unless I have a good reason where I think it's gonna serve him well, I'm not gonna do it," the manager said. "It's got to be rooted in something rational and right now for me, I just don't have a good reason for him to not play tomorrow's baseball game and the next day's baseball game. 

"He always gives us our best chance to win. We're always this far from him going deep or getting on base three or four more times. I don't know why we wouldn't want him in there for tomorrow's game."

Harper said he'd assess how he feels Wednesday but is of a similar mindset to Kapler. He's been around long enough, been through enough slumps to know that sometimes being out there everyday is the way to get back on track.

"In baseball, going out there each day and trying to get out of it ... I'm not sure a day off is going to work for me mentally or physically," Harper said. "Just got to keep grinding, keep trying to get through."

The Phillies, with their slumping former MVP, have been a feast or famine offense through six weeks. In nine of their 17 losses, they've scored one or no runs. On Tuesday, they had one hit headed into the eighth inning. They were able to walk five times in their first 13 plate appearances against hard-throwing Brandon Woodruff but couldn't scrape across a run with him in the game.

They also haven't been homering much lately. Over their last six games, the only two home runs have come from Cesar Hernandez. 

The Brewers homered twice in the first three innings against Jerad Eickhoff, who entered the night with a 30-inning homerless streak. He didn't get a fastball high enough or sufficiently inside to Yasmani Grandal in the second inning and paid the price. An inning later, Ryan Braun continued his devastation of Citizens Bank Park with a two-run shot.

The Phillies didn't want to use Milwaukee's tough lineup as an excuse. For Eickhoff, it's time to regroup and prepare for the next start, which comes Sunday against another top offense in the Rockies.

"It's a pretty tough lineup but so was St. Louis and so were a lot of the other lineups we've faced," Kapler said. "There's not many cupcakes out there. Eick just didn't have his best curveball or best command tonight. Turn the page and move on."

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Bryce Harper, Jake Arrieta, the infield puzzle ... lots going on in Phillies camp Tuesday

Bryce Harper, Jake Arrieta, the infield puzzle ... lots going on in Phillies camp Tuesday

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Tuesday should be an interesting day in Phillies camp.

Bryce Harper will make his spring debut. He is slated to play five innings against the Toronto Blue Jays at Spectrum Field.

Jake Arrieta, healthy and upbeat after having his elbow surgically cleaned out last season, will make his first start of the spring in the game.

Forty-five miles south, in Bradenton, the Phillies will play a split-squad game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lefty Ranger Suarez, a dark horse candidate for the fifth starting pitcher’s job, will get the start against the Pirates.

Lefty Damon Jones, who emerged as a solid starting pitching prospect last season, is also slated to get some work in that game. Jones struck out 12 batters per nine innings in the minors last season. He is slated to open the season at Triple A but could be in the picture in Philadelphia at some point.

Manager Joe Girardi will preside over the game in Bradenton.

Girardi is making the trip over the Sunshine Skyway because he wants to get a look at Suarez.

He also wants to continue to evaluate Jean Segura’s work at third base. Segura is slated to start at third base in Bradenton and Scott Kingery at second base. The addition of shortstop Didi Gregorius has pushed Segura off shortstop. Segura has experience at second base and is open to playing there. But the team would prefer to use him at third base so Kingery can play second base, his best position. This equation all rides on Segura’s ability to play third.

“It's important I continue to see Segura at third and Kingery at second,” Girardi said.

Monday's game

The Phillies beat Baltimore, 8-7. Mikie Mahtook, Luke Williams, Logan Forsythe and Nick Maton all homered for the Phillies.

Minor-leaguer Carlos De La Cruz, who stands 6-8, got some time in center field for the Phillies.

“I thought that was Ben Simmons out there,” Girardi quipped. “I thought we were getting Ben Simmons an at-bat.”

Girardi loved the work of minor-league catcher Rafael Marchan.

“My favorite part of the game was Marchan,” Girardi raved. “He's the block master. The master. That might have been the best exhibition of blocking I have ever seen in one game.”

That’s high praise from Girardi, who caught for 15 seasons in the majors and was part of three World Series championship teams.

Marchan, who turns 21 on Tuesday, played in Single A last season. He is considered an excellent defender.

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This is a recording: Vince Velasquez seeks efficiency

This is a recording: Vince Velasquez seeks efficiency

CLEARWATER, Fla. – In four seasons with the Phillies, Vince Velasquez has teased with his potential and frustrated with his inconsistency.

But at least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

Standing in front of his locker at Spectrum Field on Monday afternoon, Velasquez made a pack of reporters break into laughter after his spring debut against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I threw 26 pitches in two innings – which is a shocker,” he said comically.

Running high pitch counts early in games has been one of the reasons for Velasquez’ frustrating inconsistency.

“The past three or four years, it’s always been an issue,” the 27-year-old right-hander said.

He’s trying to address the shortcoming – and several others – this spring under new pitching coach Bryan Price, who just might be the most popular guy in camp right now, at least with a pitching staff that is eating up everything he has to say, especially when it comes to pitching down in the strike zone.

“I’ve developed a lot of confidence with Bryan and really trust in his work,” Velasquez said. “I’ve told you guys so many times that I have that confidence to be that pitcher and I think Bryan is the guy who is going to pull that out of me.”

When Velasquez says, “that pitcher,” he means, that starting pitcher. He knows he’s in a battle for the fifth starter’s job. He knows about all the talk of possibly ending up in the bullpen when camp breaks.

But he wants to start.

“I know what the task is at hand,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what I have to do to earn that spot. Today was a good display of what I can be. It seemed like everything was working in my favor. I walked the first guy and then got some ground balls. I executed pitches down in the zone.”

Velasquez allowed just one hit, a walk and he struck out one in his two innings of work. The Phillies won the game, 8-7.

Velasquez is competing mostly with Nick Pivetta for the No. 5 starter’s job. Lefty Ranger Suarez, who will get a start Tuesday against the Pirates in Bradenton, is also in the mix.

Manager Joe Girardi has stressed that the competition for jobs has not really started yet, that the first couple of starts are a time to prepare for the competition that will come in March. But he is clearly watching. He liked what he saw of Velasquez on Monday. He especially liked the economy of pitches.

“He was very efficient,” Girardi said. “That's how you get deep in games. If you're throwing 20 pitches every inning, it's not a very long night.”

At least not for the starter.

Sometimes it is for the team.

Girardi mentioned how much he liked seeing Velasquez execute pitches down in the strike zone. Last year, Velasquez was encouraged to work the top of the strike zone. He has the giddy-up on his fastball to do that, but locating the pitch was a problem and poorly located pitches up in the zone turn into trouble and short outings.

“He got outs down in the zone, not just up in the zone, which he's done a lot in the past,” Girardi said. “But he got outs down in the zone. Because he did that, he was pretty efficient. He got a strikeout down there. He got a double play down there. So, I was encouraged by what he did.”

Velasquez believes he was too predictable last season, that he got away from throwing his changeup and lived too high in the zone with his fastball. He still wants to elevate and has the stuff to do it, but he also wants to work the lower part of the zone with his fastball like he did Monday.

“I was living at the top of the zone 95 percent of the time,” he said. “Every game plan was always at the top of the zone, so, again, you’ve got to learn how to change speeds and live up and down and in and out.

“I have the weapon to go up in the zone. That pitch just makes it even more useful to go down in the zone. You can’t be too predictable in this game.”

It’s too early to predict whether Velasquez will end up in the rotation or the bullpen. But if his work the rest of the spring is as efficient as it was Monday, he will give Phillies decision-makers something to think about.

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