En garde, Phillies regulars, someone is coming after your job

En garde, Phillies regulars, someone is coming after your job

Update: Nick Pivetta has been optioned to Triple A and replaced in the Phillies’ rotation by Jerad Eickhoff

Internal competition for playing time is a wonderful thing. It can sharpen everybody’s performance and ultimately make a team better.

This was the great subplot of the Phillies’ giddy 14-3 win over the New York Mets on Tuesday night.

Watch out for Scott Kingery and Jerad Eickhoff.

The Phillies’ 10th victory in 16 games was an entertaining affair, mostly because the club came out of the gate with a 10-run explosion in the first inning. The Phils sent 14 men to the plate and had six extra-base hits, including two home runs, in the uprising. After the final out of the inning, the sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park showed its appreciation with a standing ovation.

Maikel Franco was one of the stars of the big first inning. He clubbed his team-high sixth homer, a three-run shot to center. J.T. Realmuto had a pair of RBI doubles in the inning and finished his night with five RBIs.

Kingery also drove in five runs. Three of them came on a first-inning homer. He also had a single and a two-run double. 

Nick Pivetta was the beneficiary of the early run support and he got the win. But the most impressive pitching performance of the night came from Eickhoff, who came up from the minors earlier in the day and struck out six over four shutout innings.

Kingery began the season as a reserve on a team that has a set lineup. Eickhoff began the season without a spot in the big club's rotation. They are both in position to put pressure on the people ahead of them — especially if they continue to produce like they did Tuesday night.

Kingery struggled at the plate as a rookie last year, but he’s “flattened” his swing and taken a more aggressive approach early in the count and it’s paying off. He looks like a more confident player. He's certainly more potent at the plate.

Over his last seven games, Kingery is 11 for 17 (.647) with four doubles, a homer and five RBIs. He’s put himself in line for more time at second base, third base, shortstop or even center field. In the short term, that time could come at shortstop because Jean Segura left Tuesday night’s game with a hamstring tweak.

“Absolutely,” manager Gabe Kapler said when asked if Kingery deserved to play more. “And it’s because of his all-around game. It’s getting more and more difficult to not have him in the lineup.”

A better read on Eickhoff’s performance might have come in a closer game. Nonethless, Kapler was impressed.

“Jerad pitched great tonight,” he said. “He continues to open eyes. He’s off barrels. He induces weak contact. He gets swings and misses. It’s not 97, but it’s a slider that makes hitters uncomfortable and it’s a curveball that makes left and right uncomfortable. We saw him go through some pretty good hitters tonight.”

It’s not clear what is next for Eickhoff. He probably would not be best served waiting around for opportunities as a long reliever. It might be best to keep him stretched out as a starter at Triple A. Regardless of the path the Phillies choose, Eickhoff, who was the club's best starter in 2016, is healthy and eager to take a regular turn in the rotation. Pivetta, who has struggled out of the gate, took a small step in the right direction Tuesday night, but if he doesn’t find some consistency soon, Eickhoff could get the opportunity he desires. An effective Eickhoff will also force Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez to be on top of their games.

Internal competition can be great fuel for achievement and the Phillies are happy to have some. It’s almost as good as scoring 10 runs in the first inning.

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Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Sunday was Scott Kingery’s first career start in center field and it came in his first game back. Kingery was sidelined for a month with a hamstring strain that was worse than the ones suffered by Jean Segura and Odubel Herrera. 

Kingery fared well in his return. There were no issues in the field, and at the plate he went 1 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. The hit was a smooth line drive to left field in his first at-bat. 

With Herrera not providing much at the plate (.234 batting average, .297 OBP), Kingery will continue to see time in center field. It doesn’t make sense right now to sit Cesar Hernandez for him given how hot Hernandez has been for the last month. But Herrera and Maikel Franco are different stories. 

Kingery will not start Monday night in Chicago. The Phillies are monitoring his workload with him fresh off the IL. He will, however, likely start multiple games in the Cubs series. The Phillies face lefties Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester in consecutive games Tuesday through Thursday. Seems like a logical spot to sit Herrera for Kingery. 

Kingery was hitting .406 when he was sidelined. He started the season looking like a completely different player than last season. 

“The most important thing (while I was out) was trying to keep my timing,” Kingery said after the Phillies’ 7-5 win over the Rockies Sunday. “As soon as I could pick up the bat I was in the cage, working on my swing, fastball machine, doing whatever I could, seeing live arms BP-wise and stood in on a few bullpens just to see some different pitches. That's about all you can do when you're hurt. I feel good now.”

Defensively, Kingery will face some adjustments. Center field is not his natural position nor does he have extensive experience there. But his speed, range and instincts give him a chance to be an above-average defender there. 

“I think the main goal is my arm slot has always been for an infielder,” Kingery said. “So I have to work at getting a little more over the top and get a little more carry on the ball. I'd say that's one of the most important things for me right now.”

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Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

For a little while, all of those "What's wrong with Bryce Harper?" pieces can be shelved. 

Harper's not on the verge of breaking out of his slump. He's already broken out of it.

"It's not a close thing, I think he's there," manager Gabe Kapler said after the Phillies completed a weekend sweep of the visiting Rockies with a 7-5 win.

Harper had the game-winning home run, a 404-foot blast into the Phillies' bullpen to untie the game in the sixth inning (see observations). It was his second straight game with a homer and gave him four extra-base hits in his last three games. He's raised his slugging percentage by 47 points over that span.

"He might not get two hits and a home run tomorrow, but that doesn't mean he's not where he needs to be," Kapler said. "I think the home run that he hit to center field (Saturday) was the turning point and the moment where he started to feel more like Bryce."

In the all-important sixth inning Sunday, J.T. Realmuto tied the game with a pinch-hit home run off of a right-handed reliever and Harper followed three batters later with the deciding home run against a left-handed reliever. The inning highlighted how the Phillies' best hitters are equipped to deal with specialists from both sides. 

Realmuto's longball came against veteran reliever Bryan Shaw, who has lasted 10 years in the bigs because of his ability to retire right-handed hitters. Coming into Sunday, righties were 8 for 58 against Shaw, hitting .138.

Realmuto, like Rhys Hoskins, has reverse career platoon splits. Realmuto's hit .286 against righties with a .777 OPS compared to .250 vs. lefties with a .730 OPS. From 2016-18, Jean Segura and Realmuto ranked second and third in the majors, respectively, batting .292 and .291 against right-handed breaking balls.

The pitch Realmuto hit out from Shaw was not a breaking ball but a changeup. It was his first career pinch-hit home run and it came a few days after Kapler noted that Realmuto's power should be coming based on the quality of hard contact he'd been making.

Harper, meanwhile, took Dunn deep for the second time in a month. He is hitting .304/.407/.537 this season against lefties with six doubles and three homers.

Rare is the left-handed power hitter who doesn't have a major hole in his swing against lefties. Harper is that rare lefty. Last season, he had nine homers, 12 doubles and an .857 OPS against southpaws. The pace he's on this year is even better.

Harper knows he's faced Dunn a ton but doesn't pay attention to his career numbers against him or many other pitchers for that matter.

"He's always been a tough matchup for me," Harper said of Dunn. "Since I was younger, 2012, faced him my rookie year in the East when he was with Miami. Being able to face a guy like that, see his tendencies ... got him today.

"I just go with the feel. I don't really look at (the batter vs. pitcher matchup). Any given day, you could go out there and punch me out in three pitches, it's part of the game. Just gotta keep going. Any given day could be different."

In the span of three days, the Phillies removed the bad taste of the Brewers series from their mouths. They followed a season-high three straight losses with three straight wins. They head to Chicago leading the Braves by 2½ games, the Mets by 6½ games and the Nationals by 7½ games, pending Sunday night's result.

In Chicago, Harper's sample size of 54 plate appearances against lefties will grow. The Phillies face three straight lefties Tuesday through Thursday in Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester.

The Phillies aren't looking past the Cubs, who are the hottest team in baseball. But they definitely have the following series circled.

"We're really looking forward to getting back at Milwaukee," said Jerad Eickhoff, who started Sunday's game. 

"We didn't put our best foot forward against them. We're gonna take care of Chicago first and go into Milwaukee with a chip on our shoulder."

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