Phased-out but not checked-out, Maikel Franco plows on in diminished role

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Phased-out but not checked-out, Maikel Franco plows on in diminished role

Maikel Franco was not in the Phillies’ starting lineup for a fourth straight game Sunday. He was held out of the lineup Friday and Saturday because he has a little head cold, but, frankly, that sounded like a convenient excuse.

Franco said Sunday morning that he comes to the park ready to play every day. He was groomed to be an everyday player, but after two months of inconsistency — and more dating to last season — he now finds himself as a part-time player, picking up reps at third base when J.P. Crawford isn’t getting a look at the position.

Though management has denied it, it feels as if Franco is being phased out. He does not have the on-base skills that manager Gabe Kapler and the front office seeks in the players it wants to build around. He has not made the necessary improvements in that area that would secure his future with the club and it’s no secret that Manny Machado looms out there as a July trade target or free-agent signing possibility.

It’s not an easy time for Franco, who is one of the most likable people in the Phillies clubhouse.

“I understand what's happening right now,” he said Sunday morning. “I understand what the manager is trying to do with everybody. I know the situation.”

With Machado looming and the team looking for a place for Scott Kingery to play, Franco, whose .690 OPS was the lowest among 18 third basemen with at least 400 plate appearances last season, was on a short leash coming into this season. He let the regular third base job slip through his fingers by hitting just .247 with a .704 OPS in his first 190 at-bats. He did have eight homers and 32 RBIs over that span.

Lately, however, Franco’s performance has really slipped. Since May 16, he is hitting .197 (13 for 66) with just two extra-base hits and a .500 OPS, and his defense has been unsteady. With Kingery now getting reps at shortstop, third base became a place for the team to look at Crawford as he came off the disabled list last week.

Both Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak have said that Franco will get time against left-handed pitching and as other matchups warrant, but it’s clear the team has lost some faith in him. If it hadn’t, he’d be out there.

“The only thing that I know is I have faith in me,” Franco said. “That's the only truth. Every single day, I just come in and try to do my best for me, for my team, and try to be a good teammate.”

Franco was groomed to be an everyday guy. There are pluses to his game, such as how hard he hits the ball when he makes good contact. He is still young at 25. He seems like a candidate for a fresh start with a new team. What does Franco think about that?

“I’m not looking at it that way,” he said. “I’m just looking day to day here and seeing what’s going to happen. I don’t want to think about that right now. I just want to think about right here because my moment is right here. That’s where I have to be right now. Whatever happens happens. I’m a grown man. I understand the situation and I totally get it. I want what’s best for me, you know what I mean? But whatever situation and whatever tough moment it is right now, I’ll just take it. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I know I can do better. I know my talent. I’m just trying to be ready.”

That’s all a part-time player can do, try to stay sharp and be ready when the manager calls on you.

“I’ve never been in that situation before,” he said of the challenges of playing part-time. “I can’t tell you if it’s going to work or not. I’m not used to it because all my career, even in the minor leagues, I played every single day. When I came here I played every single day, too. I don’t know if that’s going to work. I don’t know how that’s going to go. But I’ll just try to figure it out. I’ll just do everything that I can do to improve that situation. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”

Hector Neris optioned to Triple A; Phillies bring up LHP Austin Davis

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Hector Neris optioned to Triple A; Phillies bring up LHP Austin Davis

The Phillies have sent struggling reliever Hector Neris to Triple A and called up left-handed reliever Austin Davis.

Neris, 29, was the Phillies’ primary closer last season, racking up 26 saves in 74 games. He pitched in 79 games in 2016.

The workhorse right-hander has struggled this season, pitching to a 6.00 ERA in 30 games. Neris allowed four hits and four runs in the ninth inning Sunday at Milwaukee. The Phillies held on for a 10-9 win with Jake Thompson coming on for the save.

Davis, 25, was selected by the Phillies in the 12th round of the 2014 draft. He had a 2.70 ERA and a 0.982 WHIP in 26 games at Double A Reading and Triple A Lehigh Valley this season.

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Phillies score 10 runs and win but still leave behind a sour taste

Phillies score 10 runs and win but still leave behind a sour taste

Such an enigmatic group, these Phillies.

How crazy is it that on an afternoon when the Phils scored 10 runs to finish off an unlikely series victory, the leftover taste was a sour one because of the bullpen.

Gabe Kapler tried to show confidence in Hector Neris in the ninth inning for the second straight game. It worked Saturday but not Sunday.

After needing eight pitches in a 1-2-3 save Saturday, Neris allowed four runs and two homers in two-thirds of an inning to turn a 10-5 lead into a 10-9 game (see first take)

Kapler was forced to turn to Jake Thompson, who threw one pitch to get the save.

At this point, how can Kapler go back to Neris late in a close game? He attempted to use Neris in low-leverage situations — prior to Saturday, each of his last six outings came in games well in-hand — but it hasn't worked. 

Neris has a 6.00 ERA and has allowed eight home runs in 27 innings. To put that in perspective, Aaron Nola has allowed six home runs in 95⅓ innings. 

Neris' velocity was crisp Sunday, reaching as high as 98 mph. But the location, again, was off. Too many pitches in the middle of the plate.

The Phillies have a 4.56 ERA in the ninth inning. That's fourth-worst in the majors and second-worst in the NL, ahead of only the Marlins. Remove Neris from the equation and the Phils' ninth-inning ERA is 3.52.

The Phillies' bullpen was supposed to be a strength. But Pat Neshek hasn't pitched, Neris has fallen flat, Tommy Hunter is only starting to get into a groove and Luis Garcia is on the DL after several rough outings in a row.

Kapler must be careful of overusing Seranthony Dominguez, who factors into their ninth-inning plans far beyond this year. But aside from Dominguez, the only relievers the Phillies have who've been reliable more often than not are Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano. 

It's a precarious position to be in, yet the Phils are 12-6 in one-run games this season. Only the Mariners, Yankees, Brewers and Braves have a better winning percentage in such games. 

Nick Pivetta is on the hill Monday at home against the Cardinals. The Phillies badly need a long outing from him after their starters accounted for just 57% of the innings in Milwaukee.

It would be the perfect time for Pivetta to get back on track after allowing 13 runs in his last 14 innings and failing to pitch into the sixth four starts in a row.

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