Phillies

Could J.T. Realmuto's changed approach benefit other key Phillies hitters?

Could J.T. Realmuto's changed approach benefit other key Phillies hitters?

The Phillies did not come out swinging Tuesday night, literally or figuratively. Bryce Harper's 11-pitch plate appearance to begin the bottom of the first ended with a strikeout looking. Same for Rhys Hoskins one batter later. 

It took 35 pitches before the Phillies finally put a ball in play.

When Cubs left-hander Jose Quintana exited after six innings, he did so with a career-high 14 strikeouts and the game tied.

Then J.T. Realmuto's two-out RBI double in the seventh inning did a few things. 

It prevented another bad, bad Phillies loss. They struck out 15 times as a team Tuesday night against non-strikeout pitchers, which would have stuck out in a loss.

It also helped ease the frustration of a weird day at the ballpark. Hitting coach John Mallee was fired Tuesday morning. For six innings, this was definitely one of those games that would have prompted fans to rush to social media with the "Fire Mallee" pleas that had become all too common in recent weeks.

Instead, the Phillies won, 4-2, a night before Charlie Manuel arrived to assume the role of hitting coach for the final 43 games (see story). They got a quality start from Jason Vargas, solid setup work from Blake Parker and Mike Morin and a save from Hector Neris (see observations).

The pitching was good enough, which the Phillies have been able to say in about only 35 games all season. The pitching staff is what it is. The Phillies know as much. To win, they need to score runs. Four runs won't win you every game but it will win you many, as evidenced by the Phillies' 53-16 record when reaching that threshold.

"We need contributions from every corner of the organization and every portion of our major-league team," manager Gabe Kapler said. "At the same time, if we are going to make the kind of run that we think we're capable of, it's going to be because we score runs.

"The strength of our team right now is our offense. It hasn't been where it's needed to be thus far this season. But we certainly have the talent and guys with the track record and a bench that's deeper now than it has been."

Harper and Hoskins did not have good nights atop the Phillies' order. They were a combined 0 for 8 with six strikeouts, four looking. Realmuto and Jean Segura have been OK batting third and fourth but one wonders how much longer Kapler will go with Harper and Hoskins batting first and second. 

Hoskins, who wore a Golden Sombrero Tuesday night, is in a rut right now in which he can't buy a knock. Over his last 25 games, he has made an out in 80 of 95 at-bats and struck out 28 times.

Realmuto, on the other hand, has provided the offense lately Phillies fans were expecting. Since June 29, he has hit .310 with an .889 OPS. He has 17 extra-base hits in 145 plate appearances. Realmuto finds himself on pace to surpass his career high of 21 home runs, and if the season ended today he'd have the second-highest OPS of his career.

"My approach has changed a little bit just trying to be early in the count, be earlier, see the ball better and not chase as much," Realmuto said.

"I think what we see with J.T. is really good timing right now," Kapler added. "He has a pretty pronounced leg kick. We see the knee coming up at the right time kind of when the pitcher's hands break and it's not something he is necessarily thinking about, but it's something we see in the dugout. Everything is happening on time, so he has a chance to see the ball. 

"You're seeing him take pitches with more confidence, pitches that are just off the plate. He is getting into hitter's counts. We saw that tonight. He really looked comfortable at the plate and has been looking comfortable at the plate for some time."

The organization's hope is that when Manuel arrives and has a chance to be Charlie, a few more guys will feel comfortable at the plate, notably Hoskins. The Phillies need more than one or two hitters per night seeing the ball well. 

If not, the only way to win will be with the kind of individual heroics Realmuto provided Tuesday. That happens only occasionally, and the Phillies will need to win more than occasionally to make a real wild-card push.

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Zach Eflin finds success doing it his way — can he provide a lift for Phillies down the stretch?

Zach Eflin finds success doing it his way — can he provide a lift for Phillies down the stretch?

MIAMI — Zach Eflin is growing up. He’s becoming a man, speaking up and advocating for himself.

The results were on display Saturday night.

The 25-year-old right-hander led the Phillies to a 9-3 win over the Miami Marlins by doing it his way.

Featuring mostly sinking, two-seam fastballs — the pitch that got him to the majors and the pitch that he feels most comfortable throwing — Eflin tossed six innings of two-run ball. He scattered six hits, walked none and struck out two.

The performance was Eflin’s best since mid-June. He had a horrendous month of July and was demoted to the bullpen. That demotion led to his taking stock in himself as a pitcher. He concluded that he was throwing too many four-seam fastballs as he tried to satisfy those who wanted the strikeouts and swings and misses that are in vogue in today’s game. Phillies officials preach throwing four-seamers up in the zone as a way to combat hitters looking to launch and the approach does have merit with pitchers who have fastballs in the mid-90s. Eflin, in fact, has had success, at times, with that approach. But after struggling so much in the middle of this season, and having trouble going deep into games, Eflin decided he needed to get back to his comfort zone. He threw 79 pitches Saturday night and 37 of them (a season-high 47 percent) were sinkers. He got 10 outs on the ground.

“I think I can personally be more effective throwing sinkers, getting early outs, and staying in the game longer,” Eflin said after notching his first win in two months. “I think the recipe for getting early contact, getting ahead of guys, and staying in the game as long as I can, which is what a starting pitcher is supposed to do, definitely feels more comfortable for me.”

Charlie Manuel likes to say, "Know thyself." Eflin knows himself. Using the two-seamer and pitching to contact gives him more confidence.

“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s always a time for swing and miss and four-seamers and stuff like that. Fortunately for me, I was able to throw a really good sinker and get some groundballs tonight.”

Eflin confirmed that his July struggles made him decide to go back to featuring his sinker.

“It had been the couple outings previous to me going to the bullpen that I was kind of really wanting to go back to sinker-balling and getting early contact,” he said. “That’s when I got moved to the bullpen and it was kind of tough to figure out what I wanted to do from a bullpen standpoint, whether I wanted to keep doing the swing-and-miss stuff or start implementing my sinker. It had been three or four weeks in the making and then going back to the rotation I was pretty dead set on it.”

Eflin said he had a conversation with pitching coach Chris Young “and he was all for” the change in approach.

“I didn't demand it at all,” Eflin said. “We simply sat down and talked about it and I told him what I thought I was best at doing. At the end of the day, it’s a two-way street. They want what’s best for me, as well. If I’m at my best going out there throwing sinkerballs and getting early contact and going late into the game, then ultimately that’s what’s going to be best for the team. There was no point where they were against me doing it.”

Eflin mixed in four-seamers, sliders, curveballs and changeups in stopping the Marlins on Saturday night. The Marlins put up 19 runs on the Phillies on Friday night and the team needed a big performance from Eflin.

“A lot of weak contact on the ground, good two-seamer in the zone, attacking, efficient, and strong through six innings for us,” was manager Gabe Kapler’s appraisal of Eflin’s outing.

Kapler was asked about the genesis of Eflin’s change in approach. Did the pitcher push for it? Did the team?

“I think it’s a combination of both,” Kapler said. “It’s something that he feels comfortable with. I know that Chris Young likes to run (the two-seamer) in on the hands of right-handed hitters. If Zach Eflin is getting the ball on the ground, something good is happening. So, obviously, swings and misses are nice and there are going to be times for those, and right now he’s focusing on weak contact, efficiency and getting the ball on the ground and being successful with that approach.”

Kapler was asked about how that approach could help Eflin’s confidence.

“I think it’s less about something that specific and more about him feeling like his body is strong, he’s capable of giving us length, he’s capable of being efficient, and less about one pitch in particular,” Kapler said. “I’m not saying that it’s not important, I just don’t think that it’s — I think it’s much more the aggregate of what he’s doing right now rather than him leaning more heavily on the two-seamer. He also used a curveball and a slider successfully today and some four-seamers at times.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter how Zach Eflin rediscovers his effectiveness. All that matters is that he does. The Phillies are in a playoff chase. They have 34 games left. They desperately need starting pitchers not named Aaron Nola to step up. Maybe Eflin, back in his comfort zone, can be one of those guys. In the meantime, the Phillies look to make it a 4-1 trip behind Nola on Sunday.

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Phillies brush off terrible loss, hold big lead this time against Marlins

Phillies brush off terrible loss, hold big lead this time against Marlins

BOX SCORE 

MIAMI — The Phillies rebounded from a horrendous loss the night before and beat the troublesome Miami Marlins, 9-3, on Saturday night.

Zach Eflin delivered a strong start and Scott Kingery and Corey Dickerson keyed the offense.

The Phillies blew a 7-0 lead in losing the series opener by a score of 19-11 on Friday night.

The Phillies entered Saturday 2 ½ games back in the NL wild-card chase. The win left the Phillies at 67-61. They are 7-8 against the Marlins this season.

The change in approach

Eflin had a terrible month of July and ended up being demoted to the bullpen. He returned to the rotation last week with a renewed commitment to throwing his sinker, or two-seam fastball, the pitch that got him to the majors. His use of the pitch had dropped because team officials had urged him to throw his four-seam fastball up in the zone to counteract hitters looking to launch.

Eflin threw 37 percent sinkers in his last start. That percentage jumped to 47 percent (37 of 79 pitches) in this outing. Eflin got 10 outs on the ground on his way to six innings of two-run ball.

The right-hander struck out just two, but he made it clear after his last start that he would prioritize outs over strikeouts and early contact over swings and misses. He did not walk a batter in his six innings of work.

Big hits

Dickerson had a pair of doubles and five RBIs. In four games on the trip, he has five hits, including four for extra bases, and nine RBIs.

Kingery keyed the Phillies’ six-run fourth inning with a three-run homer.

Miami’s ugly inning

The Phillies had an ugly inning Friday night.

The Marlins had one in this game.

Starter Jordan Yamamoto and reliever Tyler Kinley combined to allow five hits, four walks and six runs in the top of the fourth inning.

The ineffective duo combined to throw an absurd 62 pitches in the frame, the most in any half-inning in the majors this season.

The Marlins walked 10 batters in the game. On Friday night, they walked 10 batters and gave up 11 hits. That was another reason the Phillies’ 19-11 loss was so galling on Friday night. The Marlins tried to give the Phillies the game and the Phils could not take it.

A problem

With Bryce Harper out on paternity leave, the Phillies have had to move Adam Haseley from center field to right field and Kingery from third base to center field. That has compromised the defense at third base in this series. Between them, Brad Miller and Maikel Franco accounted for four misplays at third base in Friday night’s game. Miller failed to make a play on one and Franco had a tough time on three balls, including one that was ruled an error and ultimately led to four unearned runs in the fifth inning.

In the bottom of the first inning Saturday night, Miller failed to make a play on a ball that was ruled an infield hit but could easily have been scored an error. That eventually became a run charged to Eflin.

Harper is expected to return to action Monday night at home.

Look in the mirror

The Phillies sent pitcher Nick Pivetta to the minors. Manager Gabe Kapler said the right-hander needed to be more accountable (see story).

Up next

The Phillies will look to win the series behind ace Aaron Nola (12-3, 3.51) on Sunday afternoon. Nola has faced the Marlins twice this season and given up just two earned runs in 14 2/3 innings. He has a 3.23 ERA in 12 career starts against the Marlins.

Four games into this five-game trip, the Phillies are 3-1. As bad as Friday night’s loss was, this still could end up being a good trip if the Phils take care of business Sunday.

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