Phillies

Maikel Franco's hot start continues for Phillies

Maikel Franco's hot start continues for Phillies

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He’s going to have to do it for more than two games in a row. But after watching Maikel Franco in the first two home games of the season, one has to wonder if he might be starting to get it.

Franco spent the winter back home in the Dominican Republic working on a new batting stance then came to Clearwater for six weeks and worked on it even more. Basically, he has moved his front foot closer to home plate. The hope is it will remedy his old habit of pulling his front side off the ball.

The 25-year-old third baseman showed real signs of progress 15 days ago when he scorched a pair of home runs against the Pirates in a spring training game in Bradenton, and he has continued to show progress in the early part of the regular season, especially the last few days.

The Phillies enjoyed a 20-hit party in rolling over the stripped-down Miami Marlins — boy, it’s going to be a long season for them — by a score of 20-1 at Citizens Bank Park Saturday night (see observations). It was the most lopsided loss in Marlins’ history. Two games into the three-game series, which concludes with Jake Arrieta on the mound Sunday, the Phils have outscored Miami, 25-1. Franco drove in four runs with homer, a triple and a single in Thursday’s home opener. He drove in six runs in this game with a grand slam and a two-run double. He also walked and finished with three runs scored.

“I feel really comfortable,” Franco said of his new stance. “I was working on it in spring training and not worrying about having success or not. I was just trying to get consistent with it. I feel like I’m in a good spot now.”

Franco said his new stance allows him to slow down, not swing as hard and try to stay in the middle of the field. He will need to remain consistent with it to have the type of season needed to convince the front office not to use Scott Kingery at third in the short term and pursue a big-name free agent like Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson in the long term.

Franco’s grand slam came on the eighth pitch he saw from rookie Dillon Peters. His walk came on a full-count pitch. The entire Phillies club is trying to see more pitches. So far, so good. The Phils are leading the majors seeing 4.37 pitches per at-bat.

Manager Gabe Kapler said he was happy for hitting coach John Mallee because “he’s been working his tail off with our hitters. We’re working deeper counts and really grinding out at-bats so it’s nice to see that all come together in one big, kind of celebratory game. A lot of great things happened.”

In addition to Franco, the Phils got a grand slam from Aaron Altherr, a three-run homer from Carlos Santana (career hit No. 1,000) and a booming solo homer from Jorge Alfaro.

Starting pitcher Vince Velasquez needed 53 pitches to get through the first two innings. The big lead allowed him to relax and attack hitters and he ended up going six innings, throwing just 45 pitches over his final four innings. Economy of pitches has been a longstanding issue for Velasquez. With the pressure off, he was able to throw strikes consistently. Like Franco, he might be making some progress. Ultimately, time will tell on them both.

Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Phillies fans have been clamoring for Spencer Howard for a little while now. They've heard about the velocity, the swing-and-miss slider, the knee-buckling curveball, the diving changeup, the beyond-his-years command. The organization has been just as excited.

With a couple of doubleheaders this week, you could smell Howard's debut. It became apparent that the Phils would need a sixth starter and who better than Howard, the top pitching prospect in the organization who was already on the doorstep of the majors and who probably would have been here on opening day if not for service time considerations.

This was a big day for the Phillies. Two games against your division rival, the NL East favorite. Sweep the doubleheader and you win the series against the Braves. Split and you have a chance to win it Monday night.

Instead, the Phillies were outscored 13-2 in a pair of losses. They hit .146 on the day, went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position and the bullpen allowed eight runs on 13 hits in 5⅓ innings.

Still, there was excitement in the air because of Howard's long-awaited debut, which came Sunday afternoon in Game 2. After a couple of scoreless innings, the Braves welcomed Howard to the majors. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. took him deep, and Howard allowed four runs over 4⅔ innings. The Phillies lost the game 8-0, a few hours after falling to the Braves 5-2.

There are far greater sins than being beaten by two of baseball's best. Given the circumstances — Howard hadn't pitched against another actual team in months and his own throwing schedule was changed this week to accommodate the Sunday start — it wasn't that bad. (The Phillies' offense was much worse.)

"Spencer, for his first start, I thought he did pretty good," manager Joe Girardi said. "He was able to throw strikes. The first two guys get on (in the first inning) and he's able to not give up a run. He didn't fall apart, which sometimes it's tough to slow a young person's mind down when it's their first start or first year. I thought he handled it pretty well."

Howard did not feel sharp. He added that he'd rather get hit on a day like today than on a day when he does feel sharp because that, after all, could be symbolic of a larger issue than being rusty and making a few mistakes against a strong lineup like the Braves.

"I wouldn't say I felt sharp," the 24-year-old rookie said. "Just a little out of sync with mechanics. Left a lot of balls over the plate and mistakes get hit in the big leagues. Overall, it was a decent day, awesome to compete again."

It was obviously strange for Howard to debut with no fans or family members in the stands. Not how a little kid dreams about making his first start in The Show. Howard dreamt of pitching a shutout in his first start in front of mom and dad. 

But it's 2020, so c'est la vie.

"The cardboard cutouts actually made a difference, surprisingly," Howard said. "Coming back in the summer camp when it was just the blue bleachers and then seeing the cardboard with the fan noises, it was OK actually. I wish all my friends could be here but I know they're all watching and that's all that matters."

The question now becomes: Who makes the next start five days from now? Will it be Vince Velasquez, who allowed one run in four innings in Game 1 Sunday, or Howard?

"Right now, my plans are for Vinny to make that start," Girardi said. "I have not talked to anyone. We're going on a five-man rotation, Spencer came up and threw the second part of a doubleheader. I'll sit down and talk to our coaches and (GM Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice) and we'll make a decision.

"We didn't come into today and say we were going to make a change in the rotation. We didn't come out and say that. We said we're going to evaluate every day what's best for our team."

It is possible the Phillies, with such a bad bullpen, could make Howard a multi-inning reliever. They wouldn't use him as a closer but as a pitcher capable of picking up six, maybe even nine outs as a reliever when the situation calls for it. Long-term, Howard will be a starter. But given the struggles and lack of plus stuff in the Phillies' bullpen, Howard could make a big impact as a multi-inning reliever in a short season if the Phillies go that route.

It seems unlikely, if only because the Phillies still have five more doubleheaders and will need a sixth starter again. But it's on the table. Most everything is on the table until the Phillies find out a formula for a bullpen that has an 8.10 ERA with 44 hits allowed in 30 innings.

"It's something that we've talked about," Girardi said. "It's something we will continue to talk about. What we do and how we have the best makeup of a pitching staff."

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Phillies go hitless with runners in scoring position and lose both games of doubleheader to Braves

Phillies go hitless with runners in scoring position and lose both games of doubleheader to Braves

Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Braves spoiled the MLB debut of Phillies top prospect Spencer Howard on what was also a dismal day for the Phils' bats.

Freeman and Acuña each homered to the opposite field off of Howard, going 5 for 6 with those two jacks and a triple as the Braves won both games of Sunday's doubleheader by scores of 5-2 and 8-0.

The Phillies had just seven hits in 14 innings. They went 7 for 48 in the doubleheader, a .146 batting average.

Their best scoring chance in Game 2 came in the fifth inning when they loaded the bases with two outs for Bryce Harper, who flied out to shallow center.

The Phillies are 4-6. The Braves are 11-6.

More specifics here on Howard's outing.

No knocks when it counts

The Phillies went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position in the two games Sunday. They have hit .194 with RISP this season.

Braves' best players woke up

To win this series, the Phillies needed Freeman and Acuña to stay cold for just a few more days. They entered Sunday hitting a combined .207. Freeman went 6 for 8 in the doubleheader with a double, triple and homer. Acuña went 5 for 8 with three homers. Combined, that's 11 for 16 with four homers, a double, triple and eight RBI. Good grief.

At least Hoskins built a little confidence

Rhys Hoskins, who entered the second game Sunday hitting .111 (3 for 27), went 2 for 2 with a double and an HBP. He's hitting .172, though with a .429 on-base percentage. Every little thing counts right now for Hoskins, who threw his arms up in the air to thank the Baseball Gods after he finally picked up that first hit Sunday. 

Up next

Aaron Nola (0-1, 3.97) starts the series finale Monday night at 6:05 against Braves lefty Sean Newcomb (0-1, 6.57).

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