Odubel Herrera will have to fight for Phillies' starting center field job

USA Today Images

Odubel Herrera will have to fight for Phillies' starting center field job

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies spring training is turning into Camp Competition.

Maikel Franco and Scott Kingery will battle for the third-base job — unless, of course, the Phillies sign Manny Machado or Mike Moustakas.

And Odubel Herrera and Roman Quinn will throw down for the center field job.

“Competition is a really good thing," manager Gabe Kapler said Friday. "I think competition raises your game, it makes you focused, it makes you bring more intensity."

Andrew McCutchen is set at one of the corner outfield spots, probably left field. That leaves Herrera, Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr looking for reps in center and right — unless the Phillies sign Bryce Harper.

Kapler has met with Herrera and told him that he will have to earn the center field job.

Herrera, in camp early and looking lean and ready to rumble after getting in the gym and dropping 20 pounds this winter, is prepared to win the job.

“My mentality is that I’m still the center fielder,” he said Friday. “All that I can control is the work that I put in on the field. The rest is up to the front office and the staff. They make the decisions.”

Late last season, Herrera lost playing time in center field to Quinn. Herrera’s overall game slipped in the second half. He hit just .189 with a .530 OPS over the final two months of the season, not quite what the Phillies had come to expect after Herrera made the All-Star team in 2016 and signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension later that year.

Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak pulled no punches with Herrera at the end of last season. They told him he needed to get into better physical condition and eliminate mental lapses in the field and on the bases.

Performance will offer the ultimate verdict, but, so far, Herrera is doing and saying the right things.

“I think part of the maturity of a player is to know what you’ve done wrong and what you can do better,” he said through Diego Ettedgui, the team’s Spanish-language translator. “So I took this offseason just to get better and work hard. I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’m definitely more motivated.

“I understand this year there is more competition and honestly I think it makes me better when I have competition around me. It gets the best out of me, because I know I have to play better. There’s pressure that you need to perform.”

Herrera’s improved physical condition is tangible.

Improvements in concentration can only be measured over time.

“That’s definitely an area where we want to raise the bar for Odubel,” Kapler said. “If he is the guy that we got closer to the beginning of last season when he was one of the best players in baseball, you’re not going to be able to keep him out of the lineup or be able to keep him off the field.”

The Phillies have hired Paco Figueroa, a former instructor in the Dodgers system, as their new outfield coach.

“He is known for developing relationships with Spanish speakers and he’s known for his ability to ask for a little bit more and get somebody to step up and meet that bar,” Kapler said. “The relationship that Odubel and Paco develop will be very important this season.”

Herrera, 27, admitted that he needs to improve his concentration.

“There definitely were times when I knew I could have focused more last season,” he said.

He said he did not know what caused the lack of focus.

“For a baseball player, it’s not easy to stay motivated because obviously it’s a long season,” Herrera said. “But my main focus is to keep that concentration going all season and through nine innings every game and the whole season.”

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies

Zach Eflin finds success doing it his way — can he provide a lift for Phillies down the stretch?

Zach Eflin finds success doing it his way — can he provide a lift for Phillies down the stretch?

MIAMI — Zach Eflin is growing up. He’s becoming a man, speaking up and advocating for himself.

The results were on display Saturday night.

The 25-year-old right-hander led the Phillies to a 9-3 win over the Miami Marlins by doing it his way.

Featuring mostly sinking, two-seam fastballs — the pitch that got him to the majors and the pitch that he feels most comfortable throwing — Eflin tossed six innings of two-run ball. He scattered six hits, walked none and struck out two.

The performance was Eflin’s best since mid-June. He had a horrendous month of July and was demoted to the bullpen. That demotion led to his taking stock in himself as a pitcher. He concluded that he was throwing too many four-seam fastballs as he tried to satisfy those who wanted the strikeouts and swings and misses that are in vogue in today’s game. Phillies officials preach throwing four-seamers up in the zone as a way to combat hitters looking to launch and the approach does have merit with pitchers who have fastballs in the mid-90s. Eflin, in fact, has had success, at times, with that approach. But after struggling so much in the middle of this season, and having trouble going deep into games, Eflin decided he needed to get back to his comfort zone. He threw 79 pitches Saturday night and 37 of them (a season-high 47 percent) were sinkers. He got 10 outs on the ground.

“I think I can personally be more effective throwing sinkers, getting early outs, and staying in the game longer,” Eflin said after notching his first win in two months. “I think the recipe for getting early contact, getting ahead of guys, and staying in the game as long as I can, which is what a starting pitcher is supposed to do, definitely feels more comfortable for me.”

Charlie Manuel likes to say, "Know thyself." Eflin knows himself. Using the two-seamer and pitching to contact gives him more confidence.

“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s always a time for swing and miss and four-seamers and stuff like that. Fortunately for me, I was able to throw a really good sinker and get some groundballs tonight.”

Eflin confirmed that his July struggles made him decide to go back to featuring his sinker.

“It had been the couple outings previous to me going to the bullpen that I was kind of really wanting to go back to sinker-balling and getting early contact,” he said. “That’s when I got moved to the bullpen and it was kind of tough to figure out what I wanted to do from a bullpen standpoint, whether I wanted to keep doing the swing-and-miss stuff or start implementing my sinker. It had been three or four weeks in the making and then going back to the rotation I was pretty dead set on it.”

Eflin said he had a conversation with pitching coach Chris Young “and he was all for” the change in approach.

“I didn't demand it at all,” Eflin said. “We simply sat down and talked about it and I told him what I thought I was best at doing. At the end of the day, it’s a two-way street. They want what’s best for me, as well. If I’m at my best going out there throwing sinkerballs and getting early contact and going late into the game, then ultimately that’s what’s going to be best for the team. There was no point where they were against me doing it.”

Eflin mixed in four-seamers, sliders, curveballs and changeups in stopping the Marlins on Saturday night. The Marlins put up 19 runs on the Phillies on Friday night and the team needed a big performance from Eflin.

“A lot of weak contact on the ground, good two-seamer in the zone, attacking, efficient, and strong through six innings for us,” was manager Gabe Kapler’s appraisal of Eflin’s outing.

Kapler was asked about the genesis of Eflin’s change in approach. Did the pitcher push for it? Did the team?

“I think it’s a combination of both,” Kapler said. “It’s something that he feels comfortable with. I know that Chris Young likes to run (the two-seamer) in on the hands of right-handed hitters. If Zach Eflin is getting the ball on the ground, something good is happening. So, obviously, swings and misses are nice and there are going to be times for those, and right now he’s focusing on weak contact, efficiency and getting the ball on the ground and being successful with that approach.”

Kapler was asked about how that approach could help Eflin’s confidence.

“I think it’s less about something that specific and more about him feeling like his body is strong, he’s capable of giving us length, he’s capable of being efficient, and less about one pitch in particular,” Kapler said. “I’m not saying that it’s not important, I just don’t think that it’s — I think it’s much more the aggregate of what he’s doing right now rather than him leaning more heavily on the two-seamer. He also used a curveball and a slider successfully today and some four-seamers at times.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter how Zach Eflin rediscovers his effectiveness. All that matters is that he does. The Phillies are in a playoff chase. They have 34 games left. They desperately need starting pitchers not named Aaron Nola to step up. Maybe Eflin, back in his comfort zone, can be one of those guys. In the meantime, the Phillies look to make it a 4-1 trip behind Nola on Sunday.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies

Phillies brush off terrible loss, hold big lead this time against Marlins

Phillies brush off terrible loss, hold big lead this time against Marlins


MIAMI — The Phillies rebounded from a horrendous loss the night before and beat the troublesome Miami Marlins, 9-3, on Saturday night.

Zach Eflin delivered a strong start and Scott Kingery and Corey Dickerson keyed the offense.

The Phillies blew a 7-0 lead in losing the series opener by a score of 19-11 on Friday night.

The Phillies entered Saturday 2 ½ games back in the NL wild-card chase. The win left the Phillies at 67-61. They are 7-8 against the Marlins this season.

The change in approach

Eflin had a terrible month of July and ended up being demoted to the bullpen. He returned to the rotation last week with a renewed commitment to throwing his sinker, or two-seam fastball, the pitch that got him to the majors. His use of the pitch had dropped because team officials had urged him to throw his four-seam fastball up in the zone to counteract hitters looking to launch.

Eflin threw 37 percent sinkers in his last start. That percentage jumped to 47 percent (37 of 79 pitches) in this outing. Eflin got 10 outs on the ground on his way to six innings of two-run ball.

The right-hander struck out just two, but he made it clear after his last start that he would prioritize outs over strikeouts and early contact over swings and misses. He did not walk a batter in his six innings of work.

Big hits

Dickerson had a pair of doubles and five RBIs. In four games on the trip, he has five hits, including four for extra bases, and nine RBIs.

Kingery keyed the Phillies’ six-run fourth inning with a three-run homer.

Miami’s ugly inning

The Phillies had an ugly inning Friday night.

The Marlins had one in this game.

Starter Jordan Yamamoto and reliever Tyler Kinley combined to allow five hits, four walks and six runs in the top of the fourth inning.

The ineffective duo combined to throw an absurd 62 pitches in the frame, the most in any half-inning in the majors this season.

The Marlins walked 10 batters in the game. On Friday night, they walked 10 batters and gave up 11 hits. That was another reason the Phillies’ 19-11 loss was so galling on Friday night. The Marlins tried to give the Phillies the game and the Phils could not take it.

A problem

With Bryce Harper out on paternity leave, the Phillies have had to move Adam Haseley from center field to right field and Kingery from third base to center field. That has compromised the defense at third base in this series. Between them, Brad Miller and Maikel Franco accounted for four misplays at third base in Friday night’s game. Miller failed to make a play on one and Franco had a tough time on three balls, including one that was ruled an error and ultimately led to four unearned runs in the fifth inning.

In the bottom of the first inning Saturday night, Miller failed to make a play on a ball that was ruled an infield hit but could easily have been scored an error. That eventually became a run charged to Eflin.

Harper is expected to return to action Monday night at home.

Look in the mirror

The Phillies sent pitcher Nick Pivetta to the minors. Manager Gabe Kapler said the right-hander needed to be more accountable (see story).

Up next

The Phillies will look to win the series behind ace Aaron Nola (12-3, 3.51) on Sunday afternoon. Nola has faced the Marlins twice this season and given up just two earned runs in 14 2/3 innings. He has a 3.23 ERA in 12 career starts against the Marlins.

Four games into this five-game trip, the Phillies are 3-1. As bad as Friday night’s loss was, this still could end up being a good trip if the Phils take care of business Sunday.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies