Phillies

Bryce Harper receives MVP chants, but Phillies' MVP might be Maikel Franco in 4-0 start

Bryce Harper receives MVP chants, but Phillies' MVP might be Maikel Franco in 4-0 start

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper’s return to the city in which he played for seven seasons on Tuesday night was everything the Phillies wanted it to be and everything the Washington Nationals didn’t want it to be.

Harper survived a pair of strikeouts — and a lot of boos — in his first two at-bats and finished the night with a single, a double and a home run — his third in three games (see story). His three-RBI night led an 8-2 Phillies’ win and pushed the team’s record to 4-0 (see observations). The last time the Phils were 4-0 was 1915. They lost in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox that season.

Of course, it’s way too early to be thinking about postseason play — heck, the New York Mets started last season 11-1 only to finish eight games under .500 — but this is fun. This team is fun. In four games, the Phillies have bashed the baseball, hitting 10 home runs, and the fans are loving it, home and away.

Harper was booed for most of the game, but the boos turned to cheers when he launched a mammoth second-deck homer to right in the eighth inning. The homer flew over several sections of Phillies fans who drowned out the Washington fans with chants of “MVP! … MVP!” and “We got Harper! … We got Harper!”

Harper wasn’t the only standout on this night. Zach Eflin looked very much like a guy ready to break out as he struck out a career-high nine batters in five innings and delivered a clutch at-bat in the fourth. Rhys Hoskins made a nice defensive play early in the game at first base, Jean Segura had a three-run double, Odubel Herrera had three doubles and Maikel Franco reached base five times thanks to three intentional walks and a couple of big hits.

Harper got the MVP chants, but Franco might be the MVP of the first four games. He stroked a two-out homer against Max Scherzer in the second inning. It was his third homer in four games. Yes, it’s super early, but Franco’s on-base percentage is a gaudy .706.

Once upon a time, Franco hit in the middle of the batting order. In this new and improved Phillies’ lineup, he’s been hitting eighth. A drop like that would be a blow to some players’ pride. Not Franco. He has survived benchings and trade rumors. His upbeat attitude never wanes and that’s a big factor in his resilience.

“I don’t care where I hit,” Franco said. “I just want to be in the lineup and help my team. I’m taking nothing for granted, just do my best.”

Manager Gabe Kapler likes Franco in the eight-hole.

“There’s some strategy to this,” Kapler said. “I think Maikel is seeing a lot pitches. It’s caused him to be patient. He’s smiling a lot. He’s especially confident. He’s getting a couple of pitches to hit per game and he’s doing damage on them. I don’t think we have to make any changes with the lineup right now. I think our lineup works well with him at the bottom and clearly it doesn’t limit his ability to produce power.”

Kapler opened spring training by challenging Franco to hold off Scott Kingery for playing time.

“There are people who tend to cower in those situations and there are people who tend to step up and try to meet a pretty high bar,” Kapler said. “It seems to me that he’s taken that challenge on and used it as motivation.

“He’s always bringing energy to the dugout. He’s one of everybody’s favorite teammates.”

Franco has forged a little bond with Harper. They have one of those secret handshakes to celebrate home runs.

“He’s amazing,” Franco said of Harper. “He’s a really good dude.

“We’re having fun.”

Winning will do that.

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Vince Velasquez stars in relief role, Pat Neshek heads home with an injury

Vince Velasquez stars in relief role, Pat Neshek heads home with an injury

MILWAUKEE — Nothing turns a frown upside down quite like two scoreless innings, four strikeouts, 97 mph on the radar gun, a pitching victory and a team victory.

Vince Velasquez began his day at Miller Park on Friday feeling irked that he was being sent to the bullpen on his first day off the injured list. His day began to get better after he had a little air-clearing meeting with manager Gabe Kapler and it ended with a blast of euphoria when he turned out to be one of the stars of the Phillies’ 6-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers (see observations).

“Great time,” Velasquez said after his first relief appearance of the season. “Great time.”

Velasquez entered a tie game in the fifth and survived a walk and a hit to the first two batters on his way to two scoreless innings. The enigmatic right-hander wasn’t the only bullpen star. He combined with Edgar Garcia, Adam Morgan, Seranthony Dominguez and Hector Neris (three Ks) on six shutout innings after Jerad Eickhoff departed after three innings.

There was some bad news out of the bullpen. Veteran right-hander Pat Neshek’s tumultuous week concluded with his feeling a pop in his shoulder while playing catch before the game. He is headed home to Philadelphia to be checked. He will go in the injured list and the Phils will add a pitcher for Saturday’s game.

The Phils’ bullpen has carried a heavy load lately. The six innings pitched Friday night upped its total to 47 1/3 innings over the last 12 games. That’s the third most in the majors over that span. The relievers have recorded a 3.61 ERA over that span.

After the game, Kapler was asked if he was concerned about the number of innings — both in the short term and cumulatively — that the bullpen was being forced to pick up because the starters aren’t getting deep into games. He did not directly answer the question.

“I think what inspires me is that we’ve leaned on them and they continue to bounce back and be resilient and today they won the baseball game for us,” he said.

The bullpen had some help in winning the baseball game.

On defense, catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura combined to cut down a run at the plate to help Velasquez get out of the fifth. It was a huge play and the Phils took the lead the next inning. Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins all had big, run-scoring hits to help the Phils tie and take control of the game.

But Kapler was right. The work of the bullpen was huge, especially against a team that outscored the Phils 22-6 over the final three games of a four-game series last week in Philadelphia.

Velasquez gave the ‘pen a huge lift.

“Wow,” Kapler said. “Especially in the second inning of work. He was just electric and as good as we’ve seen him. The fastball was exploding like we’ve seen in some starts, but I can’t remember the last time it looked that good. The second inning of work was really impressive.”

Could Velasquez continue to be a bullpen weapon?

“I think that remains to be seen because like I said earlier, I’d like to see how he responds tomorrow and how his body bounces back,” Kapler said. “I will say this: there was a little bit of a delivery change in the second inning. He used his backside a little bit more effectively and really drove his momentum towards home plate. The ball was just jumping out of his hand tremendously.”

Realmuto said Velasquez has the stuff to succeed in any role. But as a reliever …

“I think he has the stuff to succeed whether we throw him out there as a starter, throw him out there as a middle relief guy, late-inning guy,” Realmuto said. “He's got the stuff to play anywhere, you know? He's got the stuff to get through the lineup multiple times and then the role like tonight, his stuff just plays up. Coming into the middle of the game like that, it's hard to get on time for stuff like that when they haven't seen it yet, so I feel like he can succeed in any role we put him in.

“He was huge for us today. He came out throwing bullets. It's fun to be back there catching him again. Obviously saw how much life he had on his fastball. I felt like after his first hitter, he really honed in on it and just let it rip. It was huge for us.”

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Phillies 6, Brewers 4: Vince Velasquez leads big effort by the bullpen

Phillies 6, Brewers 4: Vince Velasquez leads big effort by the bullpen

BOX SCORE

MILWAUKEE — The Phillies' hard-working bullpen delivered six shutout innings Friday night to help the team win the opener of a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, 6-4, at Miller Park.

The Phils' bullpen has picked up 47 1/3 innings in the last 12 games.

Vince Velasquez made his first appearance of the season out of the bullpen and delivered two scoreless innings. Edgar Garcia, Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris (three K's) picked up the rest of the relief innings after starter Jerad Eickhoff failed to make it past the third inning.

Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins had big hits to put the Phils over the top.

The Phils are 3-2 on this seven-game trip. They are 30-21 overall.

The keys

• Harper tied the game with a double in the fifth, McCutchen put the Phils up by a run with a double in the sixth and Hoskins' ended a 15-game home run drought with an important one in the seventh.

• Velasquez entered a tie game in the fifth. He allowed a walk and a hit to the first two batters he faced then struck out four of the next five to finish with two scoreless frames. His shutdown work and the Phils' offense earned him the win.

• J.T Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura hooked up for a big defensive play to end the fifth inning. The Brewers tried to execute a double steal and the catcher and shortstop both delivered perfect throws to cut the run and keep the game tied. The Phils took the lead in the next inning.

Eickhoff's night

Eickhoff gave up five hits, a walk and four runs over three innings. Four of the hits were for extra bases and two of them were homers. He has given up seven homers in his last three starts after giving up none in his first four.

Eickhoff had some bad luck in the first inning as Ryan Braun reached on a swinging bunt with two outs. Mike Moustakas then hopped on a curveball and stroked it for an RBI double.

Eickhoff gave up three damaging hits on fastballs, none of which were above 91 mph. Orlando Arcia hit one for a solo homer in the second. Christian Yelich hit a 3-2 fastball for his 20th homer in the third and Yasmani Grandal clubbed a 2-2 fastball for an RBI double after a two-out walk in the third.

Over his last three starts, Eickhoff has been tagged for 17 hits and 13 runs in 12 innings.

What's up with Pat?

Pat Neshek did not appear happy as he left the field after working out with the rest of the relievers late in the afternoon. He clearly was not available to pitch as he did not even report to the bullpen for the game. It's not immediately clear what the issue was.

(Update: Neshek has a sore shoulder and is headed back to Philadelphia, manager Gabe Kapler said after the game. He will go on the 10-day injured list.)

Transaction

Velasquez was activated from the IL and assigned to the bullpen, at least for the next few days. He or Nick Pivetta will start Tuesday. All the details here.

Health check

Roman Quinn has recovered from his groin strain. He is doing all baseball drills and working toward starting a minor-league rehabilitation assignment late next week, according to Kapler.

Up next

Jake Arrieta (4-4, 3.77) opposes Jhoulys Chacin (3-5, 4.65) on Saturday afternoon.

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