Phillies

Crank up the tunes, fire up light show, Phillies are hot and having fun

Crank up the tunes, fire up light show, Phillies are hot and having fun

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Aaron Altherr reached into his back pocket for the skinny on how to play Denard Span with a right-handed pitcher on the mound. The card said “R-5” so Altherr moved five steps to his right. A moment later, he made the play of the game in the Phillies’ sixth straight win, a 10-4 victory over the Rays that locked up the team’s second straight three-game sweep Sunday (see first take).

“Everybody notices when it doesn’t work, but it goes both ways,” Altherr said of the defensive alignment strategies that the team is employing under new manager Gabe Kapler. “We pretty much stick to the card we get. The card stayed true to the yardage there that time.”

Altherr’s diving catch on Span’s hard-hit, sinking liner to right ended the sixth inning. It came with runners on second and third and the Phils up by two. Had Altherr not made the catch, the game would have been tied heading into the late innings. Instead, the Phillies exploded for five runs in the eighth, three on Altherr’s three-run homer.

For Altherr, the catch was sweet. So was the home run. He had been just 2 for 34 on the season before it.

“Hopefully that means some good things are coming,” Altherr said.

Plenty of good things have come to this team lately. The Phils have won eight of nine. Sure, they have come against weak teams in the Marlins, Reds and Rays, but you can only beat who the schedule maker sends your way. Tougher tests will come, but at least the Phils have cleaned up where they should. They have outscored teams, 37-18, during their six-game win streak. At 9-5, they are off to their best start since their last playoff season, 2011. The offense has been robust. The starting pitching has mostly been good. The bullpen has been excellent. On Sunday, it picked up five innings and allowed just an unearned run after Ben Lively departed.

Reliever Luis Garcia said he was “lucky” Altherr made the catch on the liner he served up to Span.

“The read, the break, the laying out and the positioning were all spot on,” Kapler said.

It was the second time in three games the Phillies' staff had an outfielder in the right spot to make a catch with the game on the line. Odubel Herrera benefited from positioning in Friday night's win (see story).

The Phils had two big innings. Long before the decisive eighth, they scored four in the third, three coming on rookie Scott Kingery’s double on an 0-2 fastball from lefty Ryan Yarbrough. Half of Kingery’s 14 hits are doubles and he has 12 RBIs, second to Maikel Franco’s 15.

“Sweeps are tough to come by,” Kapler said.

The Phils hadn’t had a three-game sweep against an American League East club since Baltimore in 2003. They celebrated this one. Then again, they celebrate all wins with loud music and a portable light-show machine that they take on the road. Tommy Hunter was the mastermind of the postgame celebration routine and Brother Gabe is all for it.

“These guys know how to keep it light,” Kapler said. “I think there are plenty of guys smiling in our clubhouse right now, in part because they’ve made it an intention to have fun. I think it’s important in baseball because there’s so much stress and so much pressure and so much on the line each night to pick your times to indulge and have a great time and these guys know how to do that.”

Aaron Nola overpowers Mookie Betts, Mike Trout in All-Star Game debut

Aaron Nola overpowers Mookie Betts, Mike Trout in All-Star Game debut

Aaron Nola vs. Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Mike Trout. Welcome to the All-Star Game.

Nola made his ASG debut Tuesday night in D.C., pitching the top of the fifth inning with the National League trailing 2-1.

He opened the frame by striking out Royals catcher Salvador Perez on a low-and-away curveball well off the plate.

Next up was Betts, the AL MVP favorite. On a 3-2 count, Nola struck Betts out swinging on a high-and-tight 96 mph fastball.

The next batter, 2017 AL MVP Altuve, singled to right-center on the first pitch. 

And that brought up Trout, who had homered in his previous at-bat against Jacob deGrom. 

Trout had no such luck against Nola, popping up to first base in foul territory on the third pitch he saw.

Nola threw 15 pitches, 10 strikes. 

This was a pretty cool moment for Nola, facing arguably the three best hitters in baseball and retiring two of them. Looked like he belonged.

He made some new friends, too. Here's Nola planning an offseason sleepover with Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin.

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Phillies' other trade options if they can't land Manny Machado

Phillies' other trade options if they can't land Manny Machado

There's no player on the trade market who could replicate for the Phillies the impact Manny Machado would make in August and September. 

There's definitely no player who would invigorate the fan base as much.

But if the Dodgers do end up beating the Phillies' offer for the best available player, the Phils will still look to make other upgrades.

That could involve acquiring a solid, non-star player for the left side of the infield, in addition to pitching help.

If the Phils can't add huge run production to their lineup, their focus could shift to players who'd assist in run prevention.

Here are some names to keep in mind:

Royals super-utilityman Whit Merrifield

There has been reported interest from the Phillies in Merrifield, and the two organizations have already scouted each other because of the earlier interest in Mike Moustakas.

Merrifield can play all over the diamond — first, second, third and all three outfield spots. If Maikel Franco is going well, you could play him in the outfield. If Franco is slumping, he could play third base. But acquiring Merrifield would be just as much about the future as this year.

Merrifield doesn't have nearly the raw power of a Machado or a Moustakas, but he's a proven .290-.300 hitter with gap power, speed and defensive versatility. He led the AL in steals (34) last season and has the third-most doubles (30) in the majors this season.

He would not be cheap to acquire. Merrifield is making $570,000 this season and will be inexpensive again in 2019 before his arbitration years begin. All told, Merrifield is under club control through the end of 2022. These are his prime years and he'll be underpaid for them relative to his performance.

Merrifield is not the same caliber player as Machado, but the cost in trade could end up being similar because Machado is a two-month rental and Merrifield comes with 4½ years of team control. That is a major, major difference that might offset the gap in talent between the two players.

Twins 3B/SS/2B Eduardo Escobar

Another name connected to the Phillies. Escobar, 29, is having a career year, hitting .271/.327/.507 for the Twins with a majors-leading 35 doubles, 14 homers and 57 RBI. 

He's been one of the most clutch players in baseball this season, hitting .367 with a 1.112 OPS with runners in scoring position. That's not exactly a sustainable long-term skill, but it's worth mentioning.

The switch-hitting Escobar would be a rental. He's a free agent at season's end. Thus, it would be cheaper to acquire him than Merrifield.

Top-tier relievers

If the Phils don't get Machado, they could instead land a combination of a bat and a bullpen piece to try to match his overall value.

Zach Britton. Jeurys Familia. Brad Hand. Raisel Iglesias. Felipe Vazquez.

Britton would be the cheapest option because he's a free agent after the season. We've known the Phillies have interest in him, and they could still pursue him even if Machado heads out West.

Britton's velocity has returned. He's back to throwing that power sinker in the mid-to-high 90s. His left-handedness would give the Phillies the matchup reliever they need, along with an experienced ninth-inning option that could allow Seranthony Dominguez to be used in a high-leverage role earlier in the game.

If you can't make a move that allows you to comfortably outscore your opponents moving forward, shortening the game is another way to remain in contention.

Baseball has changed. Having upper-echelon relievers in October is more meaningful now than ever before.

Blue Jays pieces

Jim Salisbury reported Monday that as the Phillies await an answer from the Orioles, they're also interested in Blue Jays lefty and former Phillie J.A. Happ.

Acquiring Happ would give the Phils a left-handed starting pitcher, which they haven't had since September 2016. That move could then allow them to move a Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta to the bullpen. Both are high-velocity, strikeout pitchers and both could thrive in a bullpen role. Their velocity and K-rates may even increase.

Imagine the Phillies being up 3-2 with two outs in the sixth inning and their starter at 105 pitches. A combination of Pat Neshek and Velasquez or Pivetta could get you all the way to the ninth. It would also give the Phillies a look at one of those young starting pitchers in that different role to gauge whether it makes the most sense for them long term.

Happ isn't the only Blue Jay to monitor, though. Yangervis Solarte has power and can play every infield position. He also has fair-market club options beyond this year — $5.5 million next season, $8 million the following season.

Curtis Granderson could help, too, as the missing power bat off the bench. Granderson was 0 for 13 heading into the All-Star break, but from June 7 to July 7, he hit .319/.373/.623 with six doubles and five homers.

No, he's not some big-time difference-maker in 2018, but Granderson is a markedly better and more dangerous hitter than the Phillies currently have on the bench.

It's not nearly as sexy of a trade, but acquiring a package of Happ, Granderson and Solarte could improve the Phillies in four different areas: rotation, bullpen, infield and bench.

Josh Donaldson, a much bigger name and more impactful power bat when healthy, is also worth keeping in the back of your mind. Donaldson has been out with a calf injury since Memorial Day but has resumed running and doing baseball activities and could be back by the end of the month. 

He's a free agent after the season as well. The contract status combined with all the time missed over the last two seasons will decrease the price tag. 

But if he's healthy and ready to go, this is a former MVP who hit .282/.377/.524 over the last five seasons with an average of 33 homers and 98 RBI.

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