Phillies

Gabe Kapler makes an important investment in an important pitcher

Gabe Kapler makes an important investment in an important pitcher

Confidence is baseball’s magic potion and teams these days spend big money on sports psychologists who, among other things, try to help players brew that important intangible. But sometimes there’s nothing scientific about the building of a player’s confidence. Sometimes it just takes the boss showing a little faith in the guy.

Gabe Kapler did more than preside over the Phillies’ sixth win in eight games on Sunday. He made an important investment in an important pitcher who seems primed for a big payoff this season.

Taking the mound the day before his 25th birthday, Zach Eflin backboned a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins with seven innings of one-run ball. He got help, lots of it, particularly from Rhys Hoskins, who clubbed a go-ahead, two-run homer in the sixth, left fielder Andrew McCutchen, who gunned down a run at the plate, and relievers David Robertson, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris, who combined for six outs to protect a one-run lead.

Eflin acknowledged that he did not do it alone.

“McCutchen, Hoskins, the bullpen — they deserve everything in this game,” he said.

The hat tip was not surprising because Eflin is a class guy. But his impact on the win was also huge because he’s the guy who kept the Phillies in the game on a day when they faced a tough arm in Jose Berrios and produced only four hits.

Eflin’s day actually did not start well as Max Kepler hit the fourth pitch of the day into the seats. After that, Eflin pitched shutout ball the rest of the day.

The right-hander was nearly lifted for a pinch-hitter in the fifth. He got a reprieve and struck out two batters in the sixth, including Jonathan Schoop, the third out, on a 95-mph fastball on his 95th pitch of the day.

It seemed plausible that Eflin’s day would have been over at that point. But Kapler sent him out for the seventh, with the lead, and Eflin responded with a 1-2-3 inning on 10 pitches.

Kapler came into the game wanting to rest Pat Neshek and Seranthony Dominguez so he was looking for a little extra from Eflin. But Eflin wouldn’t have gotten that extra inning if he hadn’t been effective and earned the manager’s confidence.

“He earned the opportunity to go back out there,” Kapler said. “He was so effective, I thought it was the right time to give him that rope.

“Each time we give somebody an opportunity to do a little bit more than they did the last time out, we see it as an investment. If they come through that with flying colors, like Zach did, it just creates a whole bunch more confidence in the dugout that the next time he can go to that 105, 110, 115 mark and do so successfully.”

Eflin was pumped that the boss believed in him.

“It was huge,” he said. “Because that doesn’t happen a lot with me. Typically when I’m at 90-plus pitches through six innings, they pull me. It was really nice to see that confidence that Gabe had in me and I had in myself.”

The Phillies’ rebuild started with Eflin when he was acquired in the trade that sent Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers in December 2014. Eflin has had some very good moments in a Phillies uniform, particularly last June when he went 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA in five starts. He’s got the talent to be a very good major-league starter. Now, he just needs the consistency. It might be coming. Through two starts in the young season, he’s been the Phillies’ best pitcher. He has given up just nine hits and one run over 12 innings. He has walked one and struck out 14.

If these Phillies are going to go where they’d like to, Eflin needs to keep delivering.

The manager has faith in him.

“If he’s pitching like he’s pitching right now, which is as good as anybody in either league, then it would mean that we have three potential Cy Young award winners,” said Kapler, referring also to Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.

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2 unique pitching matchups await Phillies at Wrigley Field vs. Cubs

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2 unique pitching matchups await Phillies at Wrigley Field vs. Cubs

As the Phillies begin a seven-game road trip to Chicago and Milwaukee, two interesting pitching matchups await. 

In tonight’s series opener at Wrigley Field, former Cub Jake Arrieta opposes the pitcher his ex-team chose to pay instead of him: Yu Darvish. 

In Game 3 of the series, left-hander Cole Irvin is opposed by left-hander Cole Hamels in Hamels’ first-ever start against his former team. The Phillies are the lone MLB team Hamels has never faced. 

The Arrieta-Darvish comparison has been an interesting one. Neither pitcher has lived up to the price tag so far. 

In 40 starts as a Phillie, Arrieta is 14-15 with a 3.98 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. His ERA has been 7 percent better than the league average over that span. The Phils did not expect they were getting the Cy Young version of Arrieta, but expectations were certainly higher than an ERA barely better than 4.00 for the ninth-highest paid pitcher of all-time in annual salary. 

What Arrieta has given the Phillies that Darvish has not given the Cubs, though, is durability and consistency. Arrieta has allowed three runs or fewer in 23 of those 40 starts as a Phillie, keeping them in the game more often than not. The same cannot be said of Darvish, who has been limited to just 17 starts as a Cub and has a 5.05 ERA with them. 

Darvish missed most of last season because of injuries to his triceps and elbow. He pitched just 40 innings. 

This season, Darvish has struggled mightily to throw strikes. He’s walked 33 batters in 42 innings and completed six innings once in his nine starts. He’s still racking up the strikeouts, though, and is coming off a season-high 11 against the Reds. The previous two games, he walked 11. 

There is a lot of contract left for Darvish, but so far it’s played out like a major mistake for the Cubs, who did almost no spending this past offseason because of the big-money deals already on the books and the dough that will soon need to go to Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and eventually Willson Contreras. 

Between Darvish and Jason Heyward, the Cubs committed a total of $310 million and an average of $44 million per year. Those two contracts are two major examples of why free agents are being paid differently these days.

Last June when the Phillies went to Wrigley Field, Arrieta did not pitch. He didn’t face the Cubs at home, either, so this will be the first matchup since his departure. The best days of Arrieta’s career came in Chicago and he’s still beloved there for the no-hitters, the Cy Young season and World Series ring. And he doesn’t hold any ill will toward the Cubs for making the choice they made last winter. 

"I knew that there was always an opportunity to come back here until I signed with another team," Arrieta said in the visiting dugout at Wrigley last summer. "It was a very chaotic offseason for free agents, not only myself but everybody involved. When Theo (Epstein) did call, it seemed like it could've been a possibility but just the way it all went down, I was leaning more and more to the side of probably not returning to Chicago. 

"Would it have been great if I signed here? Yes. Am I happy with the way things worked out ultimately signing with the Phillies? Absolutely."

Tonight begins an important series of starts for Arrieta, whose next three opponents will be the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals, three of the best offenses in the National League. Despite the degree of difficulty, these are the kinds of games a contending team hopes to get quality starts from its $75 million man.

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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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