Cesar Hernandez looks fast and healthy in return to Phillies' lineup

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Cesar Hernandez looks fast and healthy in return to Phillies' lineup

BRADENTON, Fla. — Playing for the first time in 17 days, Cesar Hernandez had a couple of good swings in his return to the Phillies' lineup Thursday.

Hernandez, who had been dealing with a strained hip flexor, led off for the Phils and played second base. With Jean Segura at shortstop and Maikel Franco at third base, the Phillies had three-quarters of their projected opening day infield together. (Rhys Hoskins was in Port Charlotte as the Phils' other split-squad DH.)

Hernandez stroked a line drive single to right field to lead off the game and reached on a hard-hit error to first base in the third inning. It was a sharp liner that short-hopped Pirates first baseman Josh Bell and bounced off his glove. Hernandez looked healthy and fast in busting it down the first-base line to beat the return throw.

Hernandez said Thursday was about making sure his fingers and legs felt good and they did. He admitted he's a little rusty at the plate, but he does have two more weeks until opening day to get his timing back.

It will be interesting to see whether Hernandez leads off for the Phillies on Mar. 28. Early in camp, manager Gabe Kapler indicated that he liked Hernandez in that spot and was expecting a return to his pre-2018 form. In 2016 and '17, Hernandez hit .294 with a .372 on-base percentage, an elite mark.

As Hernandez missed 2½ weeks with the injury, Andrew McCutchen drew the majority of leadoff plate appearances for the Phillies. McCutchen brings more power to the leadoff spot and similar on-base skills. Hernandez is the faster runner. The stolen base hasn't been as much a part of Hernandez's game as it should be, but McCutchen has been an even less successful base-stealer in recent years, going just 42 for 68.

The advantage of leading Hernandez off is that it would further lengthen the Phillies' lineup. If you bat him first, you can bat McCutchen sixth and have a more consistent bat in that run-producing spot. Whereas if you bat McCutchen first, Hernandez might fit best in the 8-hole with Maikel Franco sixth.

Hernandez wants to lead off but doesn't mind if he's at the bottom of the order.

Kapler said Wednesday that this year, he'll be going with his gut more in setting the lineup. He has more wiggle room with a lineup this talented. There isn't as pressing a need to gain every marginal advantage with perfect lineup optimization because this batting order should score runs even if not constructed flawlessly.

If Hernandez does lead off and maintains the on-base percentage he has throughout his career, he has a chance to blow past his career-high of 91 runs scored.

"I want to score 100-plus runs," he said. "Having guys like Segura, Bryce, Realmuto, it will be nice."

The next Phillie to return will be Odubel Herrera (hamstring), who is slated to DH on Saturday in Clearwater.

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Tuesday night was the NL East in a nutshell

Tuesday night was the NL East in a nutshell

As has been the case much of the season, Tuesday night was not a good one for NL East bullpens. 

All five teams blew a save and three lost in walk-off fashion (Phillies, Braves, Nationals).

For the Mets, Nationals and Braves, it continued a season-long theme of unreliable late relief. The Mets and Nationals have had trouble bridging the gap between their starting pitchers and their elite closers, Edwin Diaz and Sean Doolittle. The setup work has been mostly terrible, with Jeurys Familia struggling in that role for New York and Kyle Barraclough and Wander Suero pitching ineffectively for Washington.

The Phillies, despite injuries to David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano and Edubray Ramos, have statistically one of the better bullpens in baseball. The Phils' bullpen has a 3.84 ERA, third-best in the National League and eighth-best in the majors.

The Nationals' bullpen has a 6.61 ERA, worst in MLB. The Marlins (5.13) rank 26th. The Braves (4.59) are 23rd. The Mets (4.41) are 20th.

Atlanta has not been able to figure out a closing formula. Arodys Vizcaino was the incumbent but he is out for the season with a shoulder injury and was traded to Seattle along with Jesse Biddle for veteran reliever Anthony Swarzak late last week. Luke Jackson had gotten the nod as the Braves' closer but has blown four saves after a strong start. The Braves seem likely to turn to left-hander and former starter Sean Newcomb in that role after several effective outings in relief.

The possibility of Craig Kimbrel also looms. At this point, it's a near lock that Kimbrel will not be signed before the June 3 draft because the signing team will want to avoid forfeiting an early pick for which they've been preparing. All four NL East contenders will be among the teams vying for Kimbrel's services, with the Braves and Phillies more likely to sign him than the Mets or Nats. A reunion in Atlanta just makes too much sense for all parties. (That's where my money would go.)

The Phils last night played with one hand tied behind their back as their top four relievers — Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez — were all unavailable (see story). They'll look for a better result tonight and won't need to turn to Juan Nicasio to protect a ninth-inning lead if they have one.

Neris has been a major reason the Phillies have been able to maintain their first-place standing in the NL East. In 20⅓ innings, he has a 1.77 ERA and 0.89 WHIP with 27 strikeouts and just six walks. 

Neris has made 40 appearances since he was called back up to the majors last Aug. 15. In those 40 appearances, he has a 1.89 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 38 innings. His opponents have hit just .170, going 23 for 135 with two home runs.

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The new Cole hopes to meet the old Cole, but 1st – a showdown in Wrigley Field

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The new Cole hopes to meet the old Cole, but 1st – a showdown in Wrigley Field

CHICAGO — The second-most famous Cole in Phillies history will pitch against the most famous Cole in Phillies history Wednesday night in Wrigley Field.

For Cole Irvin, who will take the mound for the Phillies against Cole Hamels, it’s like winning the lottery.

“You know what’s funny is I’m actually looking forward to meeting him here,” Irvin said. “Back when I was in high school, he was a guy I modeled my changeup after, one of those guys that I really watched when I really started to get into pitching. I watched how he manipulated it, how he used it, how he sequenced it, how he used it in lanes and in what counts, if he needed a ground ball here or a fly ball there. I’d watch videos of him on YouTube. I’d study his grip and just how masterful he was with the pitch.”

Irvin, 25, is 10 years Hamels’ junior. He was drafted by the Phillies in July 2015, a month before the club traded Hamels to the Texas Rangers. The Phillies traded the former World Series MVP because they were in a rebuild. Now the rebuild is complete. The Phils are a first-place club. Hamels has moved on to the Chicago Cubs, another first-place club. On Wednesday night, the two Coles, both lefties from Southern California, will face each other and it’s believed to be the first time two pitchers with that first name have done so.

Hamels has never pitched against the Phillies. They are the last team he has not faced. The Phillies have not seen him in person on a mound since July 25, 2015, the day he no-hit the Cubs in Wrigley Field in his last start with the Phillies.

It was a Hollywood ending for the guy they call Hollywood.

The Cubs traded for Hamels last summer and picked up his $20 million contract option this winter. He will be a free agent in the offseason. Hamels is off to a good start with the Cubs. He is 4-4 with a 3.13 ERA in nine starts.

Irvin is off to a good start in his big-league career. He made his big-league debut less than two weeks ago in Kansas City – 13 years to the day after Hamels’ big-league debut – and pitched seven shutout innings against the Royals. He came back with six strong innings in a win over Colorado on Friday.

The Phillies will ride Irvin as long as he’s successful and if that means Vince Velasquez, now healthy, can’t break back into the rotation, well, internal competition is a beautiful thing for a team. It sharpens everyone. Velasquez has long been viewed as a reliever in waiting. Maybe if the Phillies had an arm like that, one capable of pitching multiple innings in that fifth-through-seventh-inning range in close games, they’d have more weapons for the back end of games and be able to avoid debacles like the one that occurred Tuesday night in Wrigley Field.

Irvin is a cerebral pitcher. He is not a guy who lights up the radar gun. He moves the ball around, changes speeds, reads swings, throws strikes and relies on a deep repertoire of pitches, including the changeup he modeled after Hamels, the man he will oppose in Wrigley Field on Wednesday night. The Cubs have a powerful lineup and Wrigley Field can be an intimidating environment. But Irvin has a little familiarity with the place. He pitched there in the summer of 2011 in the Under Armour All-American game for high school players.

“I’m ready to go,” Irvin said.

And when it’s over, maybe before Thursday’s series finale, he’ll get the chance to meet Hamels.

First question?

“His spots to eat in Philly, for sure,” Irvin said with a laugh.

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