Phillies

Phillies 8, Nationals 2: Bryce Harper blasts another long home run in return to D.C.

Phillies 8, Nationals 2: Bryce Harper blasts another long home run in return to D.C.

BOX SCORE 

WASHINGTON — With so much attention on Bryce Harper and his return to the city in which he played for seven seasons, it was easy to overlook a most important Phillies’ development Tuesday night:

Zach Eflin, one of those back-end of the starting rotation pitchers that could be crucial to the team’s success this season, pitched five brilliant innings in his season debut, helping the Phillies to a 8-2 win over the Washington Nationals.

And, oh yeah, Harper had another big game with a double, an RBI single and a two-run homer. He has homered in three straight games.

As a team, the Phillies have 10 homers in four games. They have scored 31 runs, 18 via the long ball.

The Phillies are baseball’s only unbeaten team. They are off to their first 4-0 start since 1915. They lost to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series that year.

Key moments

• Maikel Franco continued to swing a power bat from the No. 8 spot in the batting order. He belted his third homer in four games with two outs in the second. The Nats walked Franco intentionally in his next three plate appearances.

• The Nationals opened the fifth inning with a pair of singles against Eflin in a two-run game. The right-hander then struck out two of the next three batters (his eighth and ninth of the game) to get out of the inning.

• Washington ace and Phillies killer Max Scherzer was only able to record one 1-2-3 inning over five innings of work. Phillies hitters drove his pitch count to 96 and got him out of the game early. Scherzer left trailing, 2-0. The Phils scored four against the Nats’ bullpen in the sixth to take a commanding lead. The rally was highlighted by Jean Segura’s impossible-to-defend three-run double with two outs. Odubel Herrera was one of the runners on base. He had three doubles.

Eflin's night

The Phillies need Eflin to emerge this season. He has the talent and the experience to do it. Six days before his 25th birthday, he enjoyed a confidence-building start that included a career-high nine strikeouts in five innings. (He was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth.) Eflin gave up just three hits and walked one. It was definitely an outing to feel good about and to build on.

Franco's night

Franco became the first Phillie since Ryan Howard in 2007 to receive three intentional walks in a game. It happened to Howard three times in his career. Before that, the last Phillie to receive three intentional walks in a game was Garry Maddox in 1978.

Franco was on base five times. His on-base percentage in four games is .706 (see story).

Sights and sounds

Harper was booed lustily all night long — during introductions, when he stepped out of the dugout to head to the on-deck circle in the first inning, when he batted and when he ran to his position in right field (see story). Fans did cheer loudly every time he swung and missed at a pitch and they took it to another level when he struck out in his first two at-bats.

Harper doubled and delivered an RBI single in his next two at-bats. Phillies fans in the house chanted “MVP! … MVP!” after his RBI hit in the sixth. Moments later, they chanted “We got Harper! … We got Harper!”

The “We got Harper!” chants got even louder, completely drowning out Nats fans, when he clubbed his two-run homer in the eighth. The homer was a bomb that reached the second deck in right field (see story).

Health check

Reliever Tommy Hunter, on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right elbow/forearm, was examined by team physicians in Philadelphia on Monday. There was no immediate update on the results of the exam.

Hunter first experienced soreness in the area early in spring training. Clearly, he will not return to active duty any time soon.

“I think it's more that he's still felt some soreness,” said manager Gabe Kapler, explaining Hunter’s trip from Clearwater to Philadelphia. “We want to make sure that we don't miss anything. Part of that is just doing a series of tests.”

Meanwhile, outfielder Roman Quinn, who was sidelined for much of camp with an oblique strain, continues to get at-bats in Clearwater. He could ramp-up his preparation in games when the Single A Clearwater club opens its season Thursday night. Quinn could be back sometime this month, forcing the Phils to make a decision on Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams. Altherr is out of minor-league options so the Phils would risk losing him if they sent him to the minors. Williams can be sent to the minors but his lefty bat is valuable off the bench and in spots starts. These things usually have a way of working themselves out.

Up next

The two-game series wraps up on Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m. Aaron Nola will pitch against Anibal Sanchez.

Nola will be pitching on five days’ rest. He is 23-7 with a 2.29 ERA in 43 career starts on five days’ rest. He is 17-18 with a 4.73 ERA in 41 starts on the customary four days’ rest.

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Joe Girardi impressed with Jean Segura, smitten with Phillies catching prospect Rafael Marchan

Joe Girardi impressed with Jean Segura, smitten with Phillies catching prospect Rafael Marchan

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Six games into the exhibition schedule, Joe Girardi is really liking what he sees of two players.

One might end up being his third baseman this season.

The other will play in the low minors.

Jean Segura played well at third base in the Phillies’ 5-4 win over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday. He made a nifty backhand stop of a ball off the bat of Nelson Cruz to start a 5-4-3 double play in the first inning. He also had a pair of hits, including a double. He is 4 for 9 with two doubles in the early going.

“Jean had a really good day,” Girardi said. “That (double play) was not an easy play. What I like is it’s smooth, it’s not panicky. Looks like he’s been doing it.”

The Phillies are evaluating Segura’s ability to play third base. They are also taking stock of his comfort level at the position because he has never played there before. If Segura can handle third base, he will open the season there and Scott Kingery will play second base, his best position.

So far this spring, Segura has played three games at third base. If he continues to look good there, would the Phillies even bother to look at him at second, where he does have experience, this spring?

“That’s a conversation we’d have in a week or so,” Girardi said. “We have to continue to see what it looks like. Scott looks good at second. If Jean looks comfortable at third and it seems like Didi and him have a good thing going there, we might just leave him. I don’t know. It’s too early.”

Segura played shortstop for the Phillies last season. He is moving from that position to make room for Didi Gregorius, who signed a one-year, $14 million contract in December.

CATCHING THE BOSS’ EYE

Girardi, who caught for 15 seasons in the big leagues, has become smitten with Rafael Marchan, a catching prospect from Venezuela who turned 21 on Tuesday.

“The kid does a lot of things right,” said Girardi.

Marchan has gotten a chance to play in big-league camp because Andrew Knapp (oblique) and Deivy Grullon (tooth infection) have missed some time.

Phillies officials felt comfortable enough with Marchan’s defense to give him the start with Zach Eflin on the mound Wednesday. Marchan responded with two hits and was praised for his work behind the plate by Eflin. Marchan had one miscue -- he overran a high, spinning pop up -- but Girardi chalked that up to inexperience.

“I told him, ‘You finally made a mistake -- the pop up,’“ Girardi said with a laugh. “He just went after it too quickly.”

Girardi called Marchan “a master” blocker of balls in the dirt earlier this week.

Marchan is a 5-foot-9 switch-hitter. He was a shortstop until he started working out for teams as a catcher in 2015 and the Phillies signed him for $200,000. He has played 136 professional games in Single A the last two seasons and hit .285. He has yet to hit a homer in pro ball, but that doesn’t concern Girardi.

“Here’s my thought,” Girardi said. “He doesn’t have to show power. He just has to hit, be an adequate hitter, or he could become a really good hitter. Take his walks, handle the bat. Defensively, he’s going to save you runs by catching. Those are RBIs for me. He’s going to save you a lot of runs catching.”

Marchan went unselected in the Rule 5 draft in December, not surprising because of his age, experience level and still-developing bat. But if he has a good year in 2020, he might not get through the draft.

Girardi thinks Marchan can develop into a big-leaguer, much like another converted infielder once did with the Phillies.

“I’m not comparing here, but Carlos Ruiz was not a great hitter when he first came up,” Girardi said. “He’s got talent and you hope he figures out the bat part of it because if he does, you have something really special.”

That’s high praise.

HEALTH CHECK

Girardi said Adam Haseley checked out fine in concussion protocol but would not return to action for another day or two. Haseley banged his head on the ground attempting a diving catch on Tuesday.

Outfielder Matt Szczur has yet to play because of a hamstring injury. Reliever Robert Stock has forearm pain and will be examined on Thursday.

UP NEXT

The Phillies play the Red Sox in Fort Myers on Thursday. Nick Pivetta will start.

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Outs are precious and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin will get them his way in 2020

Outs are precious and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin will get them his way in 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was just one pitch in the first inning of an exhibition game Wednesday, but it painted a vivid picture of who Zach Eflin was as a pitcher last year and who he wants to be this year.

With a man on first base and one out, Eflin was facing Nelson Cruz. The Minnesota Twins’ designated hitter is one of the most dangerous power hitters in the game, having averaged 34 homers over the last 11 seasons.

The count went full on Cruz and Eflin didn’t hesitate. He went to his best pitch, the sinking fastball. Cruz beat a hard ground ball to third and Jean Segura made a nice backhand play to start a 5-4-3 double play to end the frame.

“I was pretty excited about that,” Eflin said later. “Going back to my sinker. It’s a situation where I need to throw it.”

Eflin was asked what pitch he would have thrown in that situation last season.

“Ah, last year, maybe fastball at the top of the zone,” he said. “Maybe I would have tried to rip a hard cutter or slider. Something like that.”

The sinker has always been Eflin’s bread and butter pitch. But last season, under former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young, he was encouraged to emphasize four-seam, power fastballs at the top of the strike zone. He did have some success with the approach early in the season, but eventually lost his way and his spot in the rotation. After some soul searching and some counsel from teammates such as Jake Arrieta, Eflin decided that if he ever returned to the rotation he would go back to featuring his best pitch, a fastball with movement down in the zone. He returned to the rotation in mid-August, ironically when Arrieta went down with an elbow injury, and pitched well over the final weeks of the season to solidify his place this year's season-opening rotation.

“It’s not easy,” said Eflin, recalling last season’s struggles. “When you’re trying to be someone you’re not, it’s not the best way to go about it.

“At the end of the day, we want to feel as good as we can on the mound and when you’re trying to do something different, you don’t feel good.”

With each passing day, another pitcher seems to step up and offer thoughts about how wonderful life has been under new pitching coach Bryan Price in the first few weeks of camp. Price is open-minded to the new-school ways of pitching, but he’s committed to bringing back some old-school philosophies. He has stressed the down-and-away fastball. He has stressed that pitchers work to their strengths. For Eflin, that means the sinker.

“What everybody is focused on right now is being themselves and realizing what got us to the big leagues and taking advantage of doing what you’re good at, so I think that’s a huge step for everybody,” Eflin said. “I think the underlying factor is just being able to stay to our strengths and really just attacking the hitters, and for us starters to go as deep as we can in a game and really relieve the bullpen as much as we can so they’re fresh come the end of the season and playoffs. Just that being put in our heads as a starting staff is huge.”

Though the sinker is Eflin’s strength, he still has the power on his fastball to pitch occasionally at the top of the zone. In fact, it’s important that he do that occasionally to change a hitter’s eye level and prevent them from sitting on a particular pitch or location. Eflin knows this. He learned a lot about himself and pitching last year. That much was evident in the first inning of his spring debut Wednesday: Sinker, ground ball, double play.

“Outs are really precious in this game regardless of how hard they hit it, so just to be able to do that is good,” he said.

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