Phillies

The hero again, Jay Bruce making a huge impact on the field and on his Phillies teammates

The hero again, Jay Bruce making a huge impact on the field and on his Phillies teammates

Imagine where this Phillies team would be without Jay Bruce.

When the Phillies acquired Bruce from Seattle on June 2, it was to be a platoon outfielder and extra bench bat, a player who could come off the pine, pop one and change the game.

Less than a month later, he's become one of the most instrumental bats in their lineup.

Bruce did what no other Phillie has done this season: delivered a walk-off win. His line shot off Stephen Nogosek in the 10th inning Wednesday sailed over the head of centerfielder Juan Lagares (who was playing much shallower than you'd expect) and sent the Phillies' dugout into a frenzy with a 5-4 win (see observations). Rookie Edgar Garcia, the winning pitcher, rushed to dump the Gatorade jug over Bruce's head. The party was on.

Make that three straight nights the Phillies have come back to beat the plummeting Mets. They overcame a two-run deficit Monday, a three-run deficit Tuesday and a four-run deficit Wednesday. It's probably best they don't continue the pattern.

"I don't think there's any way I could actually express it in words, how important he's been to the club," manager Gabe Kapler said of Bruce. "He spent a tremendous amount of time in the clubhouse getting to know our players very quickly. You guys have seen how many big hits he's gotten for us and how clutch he's been.

"I talked to him this morning about the possibility of maybe giving him a day. We have some [right-handed starting pitching opponents] coming up. I thought maybe it might be a good time to get him off his feet. It wasn't a push or anything. It was an open conversation between two grown-ups. He said, 'I'm in there. Not only am I in there, but I give the Phillies the best chance to win a baseball game.' And as he was coming off the field right there, he said, 'I told you.' And I believe him.

"Everything he has said has been true — from the time he got to the Phillies, from the time he walked into my office in San Diego and said he was still a strong enough defender to put out there every day, that his body was capable of bouncing back. He's proven that to be true. That he can hit left-handed pitching. He's proven that to be true. I'll never doubt another word that Jay Bruce says."

As a Phillie, Bruce has hit .294 with an OPS just under 1.000. He has seven home runs, four doubles and 20 RBI in 19 games. Keep in mind, his arrival coincided with the season-ending injury to Andrew McCutchen, Odubel Herrera's arrest, and the beginning of cold spells for Jean Segura and Cesar Hernandez.

Bruce's bat has, in many ways, kept the Phillies afloat and prevented further disaster in the month of June.

"Jay's an awesome guy. He brings energy to the field every day, he's happy, he competes," said Nick Pivetta, who had a rough outing. "I've faced him before, he's not an easy out. He's really helping us do a lot of great things. It's been a pleasure to watch him play."

Bruce is no stranger to walk-off hits. This was the 12th of his career. In the span of 19 games, he has been the key hitter in at least five and probably six of the Phillies' 10 wins. Metrics like Win Probability Added and Wins Above Replacement are more complicated than just accounting for game-winning or game-breaking hits, but Bruce has literally added a few more wins to the Phillies' total than they'd otherwise have. 

He has shown how much added value an acquisition can bring when it's completed far ahead of the trade deadline.

"I definitely, and you can ask anybody, I want to be the guy up at the plate with a chance to end it," Bruce said. "But I think that you learn throughout your career how to approach and how to handle those situations. The biggest message I talk to myself every single at-bat in a situation like that is to just do less. Try to do less. Try not to force the situation. All the cliches, start taking it pitch by pitch.

"These guys have made it so easy on me, man. It’s been unbelievable. They’ve been so great as far as kind of welcoming me, allowing me to be myself, integrating myself in the clubhouse. I think one of the things I feel is the most important when you get traded — now being traded four times — is integrating yourself in the clubhouse. Being a little vulnerable, opening up, getting to know guys, kind of understanding how guys tick and what the team is like. I think that’s really important."

Moments after Bruce finished answering questions, he grabbed an adult beverage, pulled up a chair and joined the circle of Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery, Andrew Knapp and Sean Rodriguez in conversation.

"Ray Bjuce!" Knapp yelled, a nickname that probably won't stick.

It feels like Bruce has been with the Phillies a lot longer than 24 days.

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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