Phillies

Franco hears the wake-up call, vows improvement in 2018

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Franco hears the wake-up call, vows improvement in 2018

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Maikel Franco began last season as the Phillies’ cleanup hitter, one of the most important players in the lineup.

By the time September rolled around, he wasn’t even a full-time starter. There were nights when he sat so the team could take a look at J.P. Crawford.

“It was difficult,” Franco conceded after a workout at Phillies camp Wednesday.

Franco made it easy for the Phillies to take away playing time last season. Though he managed to lead the team in home runs (24) and RBIs (76), his OPS was a dreadful .690, the lowest among 18 major-league third basemen who had 400 or more plate appearances.

Looking back now, Franco says the loss of playing time was a wake-up call. He went home to the Dominican Republic for the winter knowing he needed to improve.

It started with getting in better shape. Team officials told him he needed to do so, "but I knew it, too," he said. He has reported to camp early. His midsection is noticeably trimmer and his upper body looks strong. His weight, he said, is between 218 and 220 pounds. He ended last season at 232.

During the offseason, Franco worked out regularly with instructor Manny Amador at the Phillies’ academy in the Dominican. Franco made no dramatic adjustments to his swing, but he did work on trying to elevate the ball more. He ranked 34th in the majors with 176 balls hit 95 miles per hour or harder in 2017. With that exit velocity, Phillies officials believe he will do more damage if he gets the ball in the air. He does not run well, so ground balls are not his friend. 

Launch angle isn’t the only area that Franco is looking to improve. Selectivity has been a career-long problem. He worked out regularly in the DR with new teammate Carlos Santana, who has outstanding strike-zone control. The two talked about the concept and Franco believes he is ready to make improvements in that area.

“This is a big year for me, no question,” said Franco, emerging from the batting cage and soaked in sweat after some extra work. “Everybody expected I would put up better numbers last year.

“I put it in my mind that I needed to be better and I worked hard in the offseason. I know I need to be more consistent. I expect more than I did last year. More walks, more RBIs, more on-base percentage, more home runs. I have to be more selective. Everything. Calm down and don’t get too aggressive. Don’t overswing. Put the ball in play.”

New hitting coach John Mallee will stress these areas of improvement with Franco.

This is a big year for the 25-year-old third baseman. Everyone knows Manny Machado will be a free agent at season’s end. And it’s well known that the Phillies like him and have the money to sign him. Even a big, breakout season from Franco might not get the Phillies off of Machado.

But a strong season will ensure Franco’s future somewhere. It would build some trade value.

“I’m confident that I am going to have a good season,” Franco said. 

Why? 

“Because I had an amazing offseason,” he said.

Well, Franco’s offseason wasn’t completely amazing. There was one highly publicized misstep. He and some winter ball teammates were photographed frolicking over drinks in the DR close to sunrise in early January. His team, the Giants, had a playoff game later that day. The club disciplined the players and Franco did not play again for the club.

“I was with friends,” he said. “We went out. We were having fun and somebody took a picture.

“I know I made a mistake. I will learn from it. It’s not going to happen again.” 

So ... what do the Phillies do when Jerad Eickhoff's ready to go?

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So ... what do the Phillies do when Jerad Eickhoff's ready to go?

WASHINGTON — Saturday was an important step in the right direction for Jerad Eickhoff.

Eickhoff threw another bullpen session, this time using his curveball. He came away with no issues, which was big because his curveball had previously been causing numbness in his fingertips. Eickhoff had thrown all fastballs in his previous bullpen session Tuesday.

The 27-year-old right-hander has not pitched for the Phillies this season. He was placed on the DL with a lat strain in spring training, and when he was on the way back he again experienced that numbness in the fingers. He received an anti-inflammatory injection in his wrist and appears to be OK since.

It doesn't look like Eickhoff is ready yet to pitch live BP or begin a rehab assignment. Once he does begin a rehab assignment, the Phillies will have 30 days to decide what to do with him. If they deem him unready after the 30 days, they could activate him from the DL and option him to Triple A Lehigh Valley. Eickhoff does have an option remaining.

The reason that's even a possibility for a man who made 57 starts for the Phillies the last two seasons is the success of the current five-man rotation. 

Zach Eflin isn't going anywhere. Eflin is 5-2 with a 3.44 ERA in nine starts and has shown genuine progress with his four-seam fastball and rising strikeout rate. After punching out just 4.7 batters per nine innings in 2016 and 2017, Eflin has struck out 9.2 per nine this season.

The Phillies obviously wouldn't be pushing 2018 revelation Nick Pivetta out of the rotation either. And Vince Velasquez, as inconsistent as he can be, has allowed three runs or less in 10 of 15 starts. From a pure stuff standpoint, there's not much of a comparison between Velasquez and Eickhoff.

These situations have a way of working themselves out. If this one doesn't and the entire rotation remains healthy, the Phils' two most realistic options would be to try to get Eickhoff into a groove starting games at Triple A, or use him as a long reliever on the major-league roster.

The Phillies carried Drew Hutchison as the long man for the first two months of the season before designating him for assignment in early June. Since then, they've run through Mark Leiter Jr. and Jake Thompson but neither has stuck in the big leagues. 

It's unclear how Eickhoff would perform in that role coming out of the bullpen with the Phillies trailing or leading by a lot. Unlike 90 percent of bullpen arms these days, Eickhoff is not a hard thrower. His fastball sits around 91 mph, and when he's going well it's because he's spotting it on the corners and freezing hitters with his 12-6 curveball.

There's still a ways to go for Eickhoff, but if there's no other rotation injury by the time he's ready to go, he'll need to earn his old job back.

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Odubel Herrera, Carlos Santana lead way as Phillies crush Nationals

Odubel Herrera, Carlos Santana lead way as Phillies crush Nationals

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON — If Odubel Herrera keeps this up, he’s going to find himself right back in this city next month.

And not to visit the monuments.

Herrera swung a potent bat again Friday night in helping the Phillies beat up on the Washington Nationals, 12-2 (see first take). The win allowed the Phils to leap over the Nats and into second place in the NL East. The Phils are 40-33. The Nats are 40-34. Atlanta leads the division.

There’s still an entire summer of baseball to play before a division winner is crowned. But the Phils, who went 66-96 last season, were feeling pretty good about themselves after winning this one.

“At this point, in a lot of ways, we've proven ourselves,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We're a pretty good ballclub. We have gone toe to toe with some of the best teams in the league and done a pretty good job. At some point, it stops being that we're trying to prove ourselves and we're just competing with really good teams. I think that's where we are.”

The Philies have won eight of their last 11 and much of that run has coincided with Herrera’s re-awakening at the plate.

Herrera was leading the NL in hitting at .361 on May 17. Over the next 23 games, he hit .161 (15 for 93) to fall to .283. He is back up to .308 thanks to a four-hit game Friday night. He homered, stroked three singles and scored four runs.

Over the last eight games, Herrera is 17 for 36 (.472) with six homers and nine RBIs.

Herrera joined some fine company in the third inning when he homered for the fifth straight game. The only other Phillies to do that are Rhys Hoskins, Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Mike Schmidt and Dick Allen.

“All I’m thinking about is helping the team win,” Herrera said. “It’s always satisfying to beat great teams like the Nationals. That’s what you play for. Everyone here is a competitor. You always want to see where you're at. It’s a good challenge for us. Luckily for me, I’m hitting the ball well.”

So well that he could end up back in the All-Star Game. Herrera was the lone Phillie in the game two years ago. This year’s game will be played in Washington.

“I’m playing hard. I’m giving my best,” Herrera said. “If it happens it will be great. That’s what you work for.”

Starter Zach Eflin won his fourth straight start with five innings of two-run ball and relievers Austin Davis, Yacksel Rios and Zac Curtis did the rest.

“Every guy who pitched for us today was not on our opening day roster,” Kapler said. “So here we are, in a very important series in the middle of the summer, and we're playing the Nationals. Kudos to our player development department, an excellent job developing these guys. These guys came in and threw strikes and attacked the strike zone.”

The Phillies had 15 hits. They struck out 13 times, but they drew eight walks and pushed Washington starter Tanner Roark from the game at 4 1/3 innings and 113 pitches.

“Our offense played Phillies-style offense,” Kapler said. “What we've been preaching all year long. Deep counts. We worked walks at the end of the counts. We found ways to put the ball in play. And drive the baseball. I thought we did a really good job. Roark is a tough dude. Really impressive to see us grind him out. I was really impressed with the way we worked counts from the very beginning of the game.”

One of those deep counts came in the first inning when Roark fell behind Carlos Santana, 3-0. With one out and runners on second and third, Kapler gave Santana the green light and Santana lined a pitch that was off the plate into left field for two runs.

“Carlos prides himself on drawing walks,” Kapler said. “He wants to have 100 walks a season. It's an excellent goal. That's why he's so valuable whether he's swinging the bat the way he wants to or not.

"However, every once and a while, he's going to get into a 3-0 count with runners on base and he might be the best guy in the lineup to do damage in that moment. And we like him to sometimes be ultra-aggressive. It doesn't mean you go way out of the strike zone to attack. But maybe you expand just a little bit. You know where the barrel is and you're in an advantageous position against the pitcher. I'm really happy that was his decision.”

Santana also had a two-run homer en route to a four-RBI night. Nick Williams drove in three runs. Cesar Hernandez had three hits and Andrew Knapp homered.

Since May 1, Santana has 10 homers and 34 RBIs in 45 games.

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