Maikel Franco delivers 'biggest hit of the season' to keep Phillies in 1st place

Maikel Franco delivers 'biggest hit of the season' to keep Phillies in 1st place


The final score had just been posted on the out-of-town scoreboard: Atlanta 4, New York 2. The Phillies were three outs away from their fifth loss in six games, three outs away from losing their grip on first place in the National League East, a spot they had held since July 6.

It’s Aug. 3 now and the Phillies are still in first place. That fifth loss in six games never materialized Thursday night because, once again, this team that has been one of the surprises of baseball this season, summoned one last burst of life and walked off with a win that was dramatic, thrilling and representative of the resilience and character it has shown all season.

Maikel Franco capped a four-run ninth inning with a three-run homer as the Phillies rallied for a 5-2 win over the Miami Marlins that left every one of the 26,050 in attendance glad they came out to the ballpark on a night thick with humidity (see first take).

Franco celebrated his two-out, game-winning blast to left off Marlins closer Kyle Barraclough with quite possibly the biggest bat flip in Citizens Bank Park history and manager Gabe Kapler loved it.

“Emotion is good in baseball,” the new-school skipper said. “Celebrations are great for baseball.”

Kapler has enough old school in him to know character, chemistry, toughness — whatever you want to call that magic elixir — when he sees it. He sees lots of it in his team, which now has 60 wins, just six fewer than it had all of last season.

“The personality of our club continues to be — we know how to take a punch, we know how to get back up, and we know how to keep fighting,” Kapler said. “The road trip to Cincinnati and losing the first game in Boston is a punch. And we came back out the following night in Boston and fought back. Tonight we got down 2-0 on a home run and their guy is cruising. That represents another punch. But we never stopped fighting. That continues to be the character of our club.”

The victory, which allowed the Phillies to keep their half-game lead on Atlanta, started with Nick Pivetta allowing just two runs over six innings, keeping his team in the game, as they say, and relievers Austin Davis (two scoreless innings) and Tommy Hunter (one scoreless inning) keeping it close after Rhys Hoskins made it a one-run game with a homer in the sixth.

Hoskins led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk against Barraclough. The Phils then got a one-out infield hit against a shift from Carlos Santana and a walk from Asdrubal Cabrera to load the bases. Nick Williams tied the game on a soft ground out and the Marlins pitched to Franco with runners on second and third. Franco hit a 2-0 slider into the left-field seats. The ball took a long time coming down and when it did, Franco launched his bat.

“I got too excited,” said Franco, still sweaty and euphoric 20 minutes after his game-winner. “I was just hoping the ball would go over the wall. I was just saying, ‘Get out, get out, get out.’ Finally it did.”

Hoskins, whose solo homer in the sixth and leadoff walk in the ninth were huge, threw out some hefty praise for Franco’s homer.

“That’s the biggest hit of the season, I think,” the de facto team captain said. “It keeps us in first place. I think it’s going to give us some momentum for the rest of the series. I think if you’re able to do that to an opposing team in the first game, it kind of deflates them.”

Franco embodies this team’s resilience. Six weeks ago, his time with the Phillies appeared to be coming to a quick end. He was on the trading block and the Phillies were monitoring third basemen on the trade market. He had lost playing time to J.P. Crawford. Kapler even played Jesmuel Valentin ahead of Franco after Crawford suffered a broken hand. Franco sat for Valentin on June 22 in Washington. Before that game, Kapler, who is seldom publicly critical of his players, said Franco needed to make offensive and defensive “fixes” in his game.

Franco got a start on June 23. He had four hits in that game and has been on fire since, hitting .341 with nine homers, 20 RBIs and a 1.020 OPS in 34 games. He has played so well that the team couldn’t find an available third baseman from outside the organization that was an upgrade on him. (Manny Machado would have played shortstop if the Phils had gotten him.) Franco is back to being a mainstay in the lineup and maybe he has a future here, after all.

“People are motivated by different things," Kapler said. "And Mikey turned a moment that wasn't necessarily what he wanted into real motivation. And since that day, he has been running every ball out. He has been preparing like a mad man. His process has been exceptional. He's made some swing changes. He's made some approach changes at the plate. He's among our best hitters. They flashed his July stats (.330, seven homers, 15 RBIs, .971 OPS) up there. They were sensational. And August is off to a good start for him as well.”

Franco is one of the most upbeat personalities in the clubhouse. In tough times, he never got down. Now, he’s prospering.

“I never give up, man,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can do and preparing every single day. I’m taking nothing for granted, just trying to do my best for the team.”

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J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

More than once last summer, J.T. Realmuto expressed his affection for Philadelphia and said he’d one day be up for signing a long-term contract extension with the Phillies.

The specter of his upcoming salary arbitration hearing hasn’t changed his outlook.

“Not at all,” he said before the 116th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association banquet Monday night. “Anybody who knows about the arbitration process knows it’s business. It’s not necessarily me against the Phillies right now. There’s definitely not going to be any hard feelings there. So I feel like we’re at the same place we were two or three months ago as far as with the contract extension.”

Before the two sides go to work on a long-term contract extension, Realmuto is likely to play the 2020 season on a one-year contract. Barring an unlikely settlement, Realmuto will have his 2020 salary decided by an arbitration panel next month. He is seeking $12.4 million. The Phillies’ arbitration offer is $10 million. The arbitration panel will hear arguments from both sides then pick one number or the other.

Realmuto knows the game. He went to arbitration with the Miami Marlins two years ago and lost.

“I have a good understanding of the process,” he said. “I know it’s not the Phillies trying to slight me. It’s more the system. There are no hard feelings there.”

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is coming off a season in which he solidified himself as baseball’s best catcher while making $5.9 million. He was an All-Star. He was the catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team and he won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Realmuto’s 2019 season put him in a good position to win his arbitration case.

But he made it clear that this is about more than just himself.

"It’s not me against the Phillies,” he said. “It’s the system that we’re trying to fight right now.  I’m trying to go out and set a precedent for future catchers in the game and I feel like I had a season worthy of doing that so I’m going to fight for that.

"This is not because the Phillies didn’t give us a chance to come to an agreement. We’re fighting for a cause, fighting for the rest of the catchers. Historically, catchers have not been treated well in the arbitration process and we feel like this is an opportunity to advance that for the catchers. Just being able to fight for those guys is something I take pride in. I believe in fighting for future generations and I’m excited to do it."

Once Realmuto’s 2020 salary is established in mid-February, the Phillies are expected to initiate talks on an extension that would begin at the start of the 2021 season. Those talks should commence during spring training. A contract extension is expected to cover up to five seasons with an average annual value of over $20 million.

Realmuto, who was honored as the PSWA’s Athlete of the Year for 2019, was joined by new Phillies manager Joe Girardi at the banquet.

“I’m really excited to play for him,” Realmuto said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of feel. He knows exactly what he wants to do as a manager and has a lot of confidence and he’ll be able to instill that confidence in us.”

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Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez broke into the majors with the Houston Astros in 2015. His manager was A.J. Hinch. Jeff Luhnow was the general manager.

You know where this is going.

“I never saw anything,” Velasquez said Monday. “A lot of people have asked me, but I wasn’t there when it happened.

“It was shocking to hear about. And a little bit disappointing.”

The Astros were found to have used an illicit sign stealing scheme during their 2017 World Series championship season. Major League Baseball last week suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the 2020 season and Houston ownership followed up by firing both men. The explosive issue also cost Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran their jobs as managers of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, respectively. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach, and a mastermind of the scheme, in 2017, and Beltran was a player on the team.

Velasquez pitched in just 19 games for the Astros in 2015. He was traded to the Phillies in December of that year.

Pitchers and catchers have always been cognizant of changing their signs and varying their sequences in running through signs, especially when there is a runner on second base, to combat sign stealing. Velasquez predicted that pitchers and catchers will be even more diligent in light of the Astros' scandal.

“Now, we have to be more observant of what we’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be part of the discussion [in spring training.] You have to learn to protect yourself.”

Velasquez is spending the week in Philadelphia helping the team with some promotional work. (He even plans to throw a couple of bullpen sessions in the cages at Citizens Bank Park.) On Monday, Velasquez and teammate Roman Quinn joined former Phillies Milt Thompson and Mickey Morandini at a youth instructional clinic at the Ryan Howard Training Center in South Philadelphia. Forty-five young players affiliated with the Phillies/MLB Urban Youth Academy and RBI program showed up a cold January day to get a head start on the season and some tips from the Phillies players past and present.

Quinn missed significant time last season with a torn groin muscle, the latest in a series of injuries that has robbed the exciting outfielder of playing time in his career. He has made changes to his offseason conditioning program and believes he can stay healthy in 2020 and make a run at the Phillies’ starting centerfield job. As it stands right now, he will battle Adam Haseley for the job in camp.

“I trust my abilities and I know if I’m healthy then it’s hard to keep me out of the lineup,” Quinn said.

Like Quinn, Velasquez will be in a spring-training battle.

The top four spots in the Phillies’ rotation are set with Aaron Nola, Zach Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta. Velasquez will compete with Nick Pivetta for the fifth spot in the rotation. The loser of the competition will not necessarily be out of a job as the Phillies need bullpen help and one of the two could end up there.

Velasquez knows where he wants to be.

“I can play any role, but I want to start,” the 27-year-old right-hander said. “I want to be in the rotation. I want to be in that playoff run and I want to be that guy for that game.

“I know I have a job to earn. That’s my main focus. Battling.”

Velasquez, as Phillies fans know by now, is blessed with a tremendous arm. However, he has struggled to put his talents together and arrive at that place known as consistency. He runs high pitch counts and fails to get through the middle of games. He averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his 23 starts last season.

Velasquez knows it’s time for him to pitch deeper into games and he says, “I want that bad.” He has already established a telephone/text/video relationship with new pitching coach Bryan Price in hopes of picking up some keys to doing that.

“We’re in communication,” Velasquez said. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times and sent him videos of some of my bullpens.”

Velasquez avoided salary arbitration and will make $3.6 million this season. As his price tag goes up, so do expectations and the impatience of team officials. He might not be around at this time next season if he doesn’t produce in 2020.

“I’m very optimistic this is the year it clicks,” Velasquez said. “I know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I feel like I’m starting to figure a lot of things out. A lot of people tend to figure things out after two or three years in the major leagues and I think this is that time for me to put all the pieces together.

“My time is due. It’s really come down to that point where I need to plug in all the pieces.”

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