Charlie Manuel is back to do what he does best: Break tension and build confidence — can it save a team?

Charlie Manuel is back to do what he does best: Break tension and build confidence — can it save a team?

Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, the day after the Phillies got just three hits in a loss to the Giants, and three days after they were one-hit by the Giants, Gabe Kapler offered that his team’s hitters that day would alter their approach at the plate.

“We’re going into the game with the approach of we’re not providing much information today,” Kapler said. “We’re just going to be athletes. We’re going to go out there and let our natural athleticism take over. We know that when we’re loose and relaxed, we produce our best swings, so it’s about being easy. With runners in scoring position, or in other big situations, nobody is trying to take anyone deep. Simple approach to take the pressure off.”

Loose. Relaxed. Clear minded. Tension free.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Charlie Manuel talk hitting, you’ve heard all of these buzz words.

Now, you’re going to be hearing more of them.

And so are Phillies hitters.

The 75-year-old batting cage rat is the Phillies new hitting coach. The team turned to him Tuesday in a desperate attempt to save a season of high expectations, a desperate attempt to end a seven-year playoff drought. The Phillies have not played postseason ball since Manuel’s 102-win 2011 team had a bad week at the worst possible time and was eliminated in the division series. Back then Manuel was in the midst of the most successful run ever enjoyed by a Phillies skipper — five division titles, two National League pennants and a World Series title. His legacy as the most successful skipper in Phillies history is secure. Now, he’s trying to do the organization a solid by helping it get to a place it hasn’t gotten to since he was in charge.

Manuel is not leaving his role as a front office adviser to run the ballclub. That’s Gabe Kapler’s job, but how long it remains Gabe Kapler’s job — i.e., will he return next season? — could come down to how successful Manuel is at waking up this slumbering offense over the final 43 games of the season. (It would help if Big Chuck could find three starting pitchers who can go seven innings, but that’s not his job and it’s too late for that anyway. At least for now. But next season — hoo boy.)

Slumbering is a fitting word to describe the Phillies’ offense. Pressing might be a better word. Certainly it seems as if these guys are putting way too much pressure on themselves and that’s no way to hit.

Rhys Hoskins, who takes seriously his role as a team leader, is coming off a 2-for-24 road trip. He has one RBI this month. He wants to be a great Phillie, on and off the field. There are nights when you can almost see him turning the bat handle into saw dust, trying to do too much, trying to please too many.

Bryce Harper has looked that way all season as he tries to hit 800-foot home runs when paint scrapers, or line drives in the gap, will do.

J.T. Realmuto has also looked that way all season as he plays to show a team and a city he was worth a high price in prospects.  

This is all right in Manuel’s wheelhouse. Pressing hitters. Hitters who lose their natural reactive skill because they think too much. Hitters lacking confidence.

This is Manuel’s specialty. He’s not going to come in and rip apart swings. He’s going to come in and preach what he always has — get a good ball to hit, catch it out front, be ready to hit, be aggressive in the zone. He’s going to tell his hitters that home runs are nice, that home runs are great — no one loves them more than Chuck — but home runs are things that happen when you get a good ball to hit, execute a good swing and catch the ball out front. Manuel will keep it simple for these guys — just like Kapler was saying Sunday in San Francisco when the heat was getting turned up.

Manuel’s simple approach is embodied in something he likes to say: If you’re not hitting .300, you have a problem. He knows that not everybody is capable of hitting .300. But that should be the goal of every hitter. And if you’re strong and have some pop and catch that good ball to hit well, that well-struck fly ball just might end up over the fence for a home run. And when you hit that home run, or get that runner home, you’ll hear it from Manuel in a reassuring tone that will build confidence. That’s another Manuel strength — building confidence, and confidence is baseball’s magic potion.

Manuel has some work to do. The Phillies offense has been inconsistent all season. Since the All-Star break, the offense has been particularly bad. Entering Tuesday, it ranked 27th in the majors in runs, 27th in batting average, 26th in OPS and 28th in extra-base hits since the break.

And it ranked 28th in the majors with a .211 batting average with runners in scoring position since the break.

That’s a sign of a pressing team.

Charlie Manuel has always said a hitter needs to be tension-free and confident to succeed.

He’s coming in to work on those intangibles.

And if he can work his magic, the results should be better and maybe, just maybe, the Phillies can live to breathe a little October air for the first time since he was skipper.

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Phillies infielder Scott Kingery talks about the hell that is coronavirus

Phillies infielder Scott Kingery talks about the hell that is coronavirus

If you don’t believe this coronavirus thing is real, listen to what Scott Kingery says and you might change your mind.

“It started on a Thursday (June 11) when I came down with a headache,” the Phillies second baseman told NBC Sports Philadelphia from his home in Phoenix on Tuesday. “I tried to play it off but it didn’t go away.

“Saturday around 10 a.m., I got chills so bad I couldn’t move without my whole body shaking."

“That night, my fever spiked so high that I sweated through my sheets. It left an imprint of my body."

“My fever broke Sunday morning and I actually felt a little better."

“But then three or four days later, I lost my sense of taste and smell for a few days. That was really annoying." 

“For a week, I was so tired. Low energy. Fatigue. Then I experienced shortness of breath for a week. I felt like I laid on the couch for three weeks without moving. I was tired just going up the stairs.”

Kingery, 26, wants people to know a few things:

One, he’s healthy now, completely symptom-free.

Two, he wants to be in Philadelphia, preparing for a season with his Phillies teammates, but can’t because his test results were initially wrong and then were delayed by the Fourth of July holiday.

The third thing Kingery wants everyone from his teammates to fans to know is that this virus is real.

“It really does spring on you fast,” he said. “Even if you don’t think you’re in a position to be exposed. It comes on very fast. It can creep up on you and get you pretty bad like it did with me."

“I know five or six people who had it and every single person was affected differently. Some had a sore throat, really bad. I never had a sore throat. Some were asymptomatic the whole way. I was not.”

Kingery returned to the Phoenix area after spring training shut down in March. He began working out with a small group of players, all of whom live in the same area. One guy in the group tested positive.

After learning of his buddy’s positive test, Kingery went to an urgent care facility on a Monday and got tested. He went home (he has two roommates) and quarantined. He waited for the results of his test.

Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Saturday.

For whatever reason, maybe it was that the virus was spiking in Phoenix and facilities were overwhelmed, the results never came.

But Kingery didn’t need them.

He knew he had it. 

After sweating out a raging fever on that Saturday night, five days after being tested, Kingery phoned the urgent care facility. They said they had his test results and they were ... negative.
“There was no way that was possible,” he said. “I had every symptom."

Kingery called Phillies athletic trainer Paul Buchheit who rush-shipped a testing kit to Kingery. 

This one came back positive for COVID-19.

Kingery quarantined and went through protocols. His testing is now being handled by MLB.

“I’ve passed one test,” he said. “As soon as I get the results of the second one and it’s good, I’ll be on a plane to Philadelphia.”

Kingery has begun to ease back into physical activity. He is doing some hitting. He believes he can be baseball-ready to play in the Phillies’ season opener July 24.

But he’s not sure he will have been cleared by then by MLB and the Phillies. Once he gets to Philadelphia, he will have to go through intake protocols and more testing. He said that because he had a difficult illness, the team would likely want him to go through some extra testing, just to make sure his heart and lungs are good.

Kingery said he’s spoken to only a few of his teammates. He thinks of them. He wants to be with them.

And he wants them all to stay healthy.

“It’s frustrating to see everything going on in Philly and know I should be there if it weren’t for testing delays,” he said. “But every protocol that MLB and the Phillies are taking is necessary. 

“There are ways we can take precautions without there being a big outbreak so we can play this season.

“But I want people to know this is not a two-week thing if you get it. You’re not supposed to do any physical activity for 10 to 14 days after a positive test. That could be a month. That’s a huge part of the season so you don’t want to get it. You have to take the precautions and protocols seriously."

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MLB odds 2020: Bryce Harper could be good NL MVP bet in shortened season

MLB odds 2020: Bryce Harper could be good NL MVP bet in shortened season

Playing 37 percent of a normal season lends unpredictability to a lot of things. 

The MVP race is one of them. 

If a player has a big month, that accounts for half of the season. Any number of guys can get hot for 3 or 4 weeks and establish themselves as the frontrunner for MVP honors.

Bryce Harper is one of those guys. Harper won the 2015 NL MVP as a 22-year old, hitting .330 with 42 HR, 99 RBI and a 1.109 OPS. But he hasn't finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting since. Entering his second season in a Phillies uniform, Harper is listed among the favorites to win the 2020 NL MVP award.

Depending on which sportsbook you're referencing, Harper has anywhere between 13-1 to 20-1 MVP odds. The players with better odds than Harper include Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto. The competition to win NL MVP will be stiff, especially when you factor in other worthy candidates like Nolan Arenado, Javier Baez, Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant.

But if you can get Harper at anywhere close to 20-1 odds, several reasons suggest it may be worth taking a flier.

His penchant for hot starts over the course of his career is well documented. Harper has a 1.025 OPS to go along with 47 HR and 132 RBI in 179 career games in March and April. He's entering his age 27 season, which is often the peak of a player's prime. 

He's settled in to his new city and adjusted to his new teammates. Granted, Harper and every other MLB player will have to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding this season. But speaking with the media last week, he seems as comfortable as one can be with the idea of playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic.

And let's not forget the added motivation of watching his former team hoist the World Series trophy last October. 

The one drawback that comes to mind is that Harper will be playing in empty ballparks, at least to start the season. More than any other player in baseball, Harper feeds off the crowd. He channels the positive energy at home and the negative energy on the road and uses it to his advantage. 

Will a lack of juice in the ballpark have an adverse effect on his performance?

"It's going to be a challenge for everybody," Harper said last Friday in a zoom press conference with reporters. "You have to remember that you are playing for the fans who are watching you at home. They're probably excited as all get out to be able to watch you play. I'm going to play my same game. I'm still going to pump my fist, I'm still going to play as hard as I can. There are people watching, they might not be in the stands but they're watching us from home and we owe them our best."

17 days away from Opening Day, Harper is locked in. It's been a long time since he's gone 10 months without playing a meaningful game. His focus and excitement are evident just listening to him talk. It all could translate to a big year, potentially an MVP year. 

Place your bets accordingly.  

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