Phillies

Phillies' biggest surprises and disappointments through 6 weeks

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Phillies' biggest surprises and disappointments through 6 weeks

The 23-16 Phillies have exceeded expectations through six weeks, playing at a mid-90s-win pace. While few would project them to approach that total, it's interesting that they've arrived at this record despite slow starts from numerous players.

Let's take inventory of the biggest surprises and disappointments as we near the quarter-pole.

Biggest offensive surprise
Odubel Herrera is the obvious answer. We knew of his skill set and potential if everything clicked, but who would have guessed he'd be leading the National League in hitting through 40-ish games?

The widespread perception is that Herrera is a streaky player. But in reality, his bat has been hot for nearly a calendar year. Dating back to last June 3, Herrera has hit .338, second in the majors to only Jose Altuve. His .395 OBP and .550 slugging percentage are also top-10 in the NL over that span.

Herrera's slugging percentage has increased in each of his four big-league seasons. When he homers, they tend to be missiles or towering no-doubters. Sure looks capable of reaching 20-plus home runs after previously topping out at 15.

Biggest offensive disappointment
While some might still want to give this to Carlos Santana, you just can't right now. Santana has been one of baseball's hottest hitters the last week, driving in 16 runs in his last nine games. 

Despite his slow start, he has nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (24), and Santana’s 19 extra-base hits rank second among all major-league first basemen behind only Freddie Freeman.

So let's go with a combo here of Andrew Knapp and J.P. Crawford.

Knapp is hitting .185 with one extra-base hit and 23 strikeouts in 62 plate appearances. Because of this and Jorge Alfaro’s recent play on both sides, Alfaro has emerged as the No. 1 catcher. If both stay healthy all season, expect Alfaro to start between 95 and 110 games.

As for the injured Crawford, he's hit .188/.246/.328 with just four walks and 19 K's in 71 plate appearances. He's swung and missed a good amount and has not shown the trademark plate selection he did in the minors. It's far too early to say this is who Crawford will be, but the Phillies certainly hoped for a faster start in his first full season.

Biggest defensive surprise
Santana had a track record of top-notch first-base defense but he's been even better than advertised. Aside from his steadiness around the bag and on scoops, the Phillies have picked four runners off of first base in their last 11 games, with Santana providing the quick swipe tag each time.

There's hidden value in that and in first-base defense on the whole. You don't notice scoops unless they're missed. You don't notice the 3-6 assists unless they go into left field. 

Biggest defensive disappointment
Not to pile on Crawford, but he committed a major-league high five throwing errors from shortstop in his 20 starts this season.

Unfortunately for Crawford, his defense will always be measured up against the gloves of his predecessors, Freddy Galvis and Jimmy Rollins. Galvis and Rollins are two of the best defensive shortstops of the last two decades.

Still, the Phillies will need more consistency moving forward from Crawford, especially with ground-ballers like Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin in the rotation.

Biggest pitching surprise
It's hard to pick just one with Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez each pitching well in five of their eight starts and young relievers Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano taking steps forward.

But you have to go with Nola. Aside from Max Scherzer, is there any right-handed starting pitcher in the National League you'd put clearly ahead of Nola? After Scherzer, you have a similarly-skilled group of Nola, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Martinez and Johnny Cueto.

Nola is among the major-league leaders in every important pitching category: ERA, WHIP, opponents' batting average and OPS, soft-contact rate, groundball rate, first-pitch strikes, swinging strikes.

Last season, we saw a No. 2 starter become an ace. This season, we're watching an ace become a Cy Young candidate.

Biggest pitching disappointment
Hector Neris is the answer here based on the three blown saves, nine walks and three homers allowed through 15⅔ innings. 

Neris just isn't right at the moment. He's never trusted his fastball as much as he should, and right now his splitter isn't nearly as effective as it was the last couple seasons.

The Phillies have several relievers with closer's stuff, so it makes sense at this point to go with the hot hand rather than define Neris' role as the saver. We saw the beginnings of it Sunday with Ramos. 

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A year ago Friday, Aaron Nola carried a 4.76 ERA into his eighth start of the season. It may be hard to remember, but there was uncertainty then with the 25-year-old. He was coming off a 2016 season when he was hit around for most of June and July and then spent the rest of the season on the DL with an elbow injury. 

Early into 2017, he hadn't yet gotten his mojo back.

When Nola dominated the Cardinals over 7⅓ innings that night, little did we know he was beginning a historic stretch of 10 consecutive starts allowing two runs or less in six innings or more.

The story on Nola has changed significantly over these last 366 days. Whereas a year ago it was unclear whether he'd live up to his potential, he's now solidified as an ace of a major-league staff who has well exceeded it.

And whereas that win on June 22, 2017 improved the Phillies to 25 games under .500, this win capped off the fourth straight series win for a surging team. 

Nola made another impressive start Saturday, limiting the Nationals to two runs over six strong innings. Both runs came in the first. After a leadoff single in the second inning, the Nationals went 0 for 14 off Nola until he exited. 

The Phillies' 5-3 win made Nola 9-2 on the season. He's allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his 16 starts. 

Over the last calendar year, Nola is 17-8 in 33 starts with a 2.86 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 211 innings. Ace-like production.

Any pitcher with that resume would be lying if he said the last year hasn't made him more confident. Nola certainly is.

"I feel like I'm learning more about myself, my body, learning more about the game," he said Saturday. "I feel like I just need to keep adding on though, the more I keep pitching. I think it's pretty cool."

After this weekend, the Phillies aren't back in D.C. until the end of August. But Nola will return to Nationals Park sooner because he'll undoubtedly represent the Phillies in the All-Star Game July 17.

It's an honor he's earned. To this point, the only two NL pitchers having better seasons are Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

It's a testament to how good Nola has become that on an afternoon in D.C. when he felt like he had little, he still pitched well against a dangerous 1-6 of Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner.

"You're not gonna have your stuff all the time," Nola said. "Most of the time you're gonna have two pitches, really hope to have three pitches with command of all of them. Some days you feel like you have not much at all. That's kind of what I felt today. But it's all about competing and battling and that's what I did today."

That's what the Phillies have done for the last two weeks. They've won nine of their last 12 games, and after starting June with a 1-7 record, they're 10-10. 

The offense has come around, the defense has gone a little while without being sloppy, and the starting pitching continues to keep the Phillies in games.

Perhaps we need to rethink the ceiling for this team. Not because of one 4-for-4 game from Maikel Franco (see first take) or a weekend series win in the nation's capital, but because of how well the Phils have held their own against top competition. They're 21-23 against teams .500 or above and 20-10 against losing teams. A formula like that can get you to October.

"The hitting's been off the charts, scoring runs like crazy," Nola said. "We're playing really good baseball."

June has been a disastrous month for the Phillies for years. Since 2012, they're 70-117 in June. But this time, the struggles didn't last the entire month. The Phils were able to turn it around after falling to 32-30 and are now eight games over .500 for the first time since May 31.

Have these last two weeks changed the conversation about the 2018 team?

"It may change the external conversations," Gabe Kapler said, "but internally, whether we went through this stretch and got beat up a little bit or went through this stretch and came out in a really good spot, we're still the same, high-quality team."

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

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Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

BOX SCORE 

Remember all that talk about the Phillies' grueling June schedule?

They're meeting the challenge.

After Saturday's 5-3 win over the Nationals, the Phillies are 9-3 in their last 12 games and have won four straight series over the Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals and Nats.

On May 28, the Phillies embarked upon a 32-game stretch during which the worst team they'd face was a game under .500. The Phils are 24 games into that stretch and have gone 12-12. 

They opened June by losing seven of eight games yet have worked their way to 10-10 on the month.

At 41-33, the Phillies are 1½ games behind the Braves and 1½ ahead of the Nationals.

Nola bounces back

After failing to complete five innings for the first time in 36 starts last Sunday in Milwaukee, Aaron Nola rebounded and held the Nationals in check over six strong innings.

Nola allowed a pair of runs with two outs in the first and a leadoff single to Wilmer Difo in the second, then the Nationals went 0 for 14 against him the rest of the way. 

Nola is 9-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 16 starts this season. In 12 of them, he's allowed two runs or less.

Franco's big day

Huge afternoon for Maikel Franco, who went 4 for 4 with three singles and a double.

Franco scored in the second to tie the game, scored in the seventh to put the Phillies ahead and drove in a run in the eighth to give them a three-run cushion.

Both times he crossed home plate, he barely scored after aggressive sends from third-base coach Dusty Wathan — one on an RBI single from Nola, the other on a sac fly from Jesmuel Valentin. On the game-winning, seventh-inning sac fly, Bryce Harper caught the ball with his momentum coming toward the plate and fired home but Franco narrowly eluded catcher Spencer Kieboom's tag. The Nationals challenged but the call was upheld.

Thievery

The Nationals went 1 for 2 stealing bases against Nola, who has been on the mound for more steals (14) and attempts (18) than any pitcher in the majors this season.

Wilmer Difo swiped second in the second, but Jorge Alfaro ended the fifth inning by nailing Harper. Alfaro has thrown out 14 base stealers to lead the majors.

Going away from Altherr

Nick Williams got another start at right field and went 1 for 3 with a double.

Since June 10, Nick Williams has started nine games and Aaron Altherr has started two.

Altherr has just 20 at-bats in the Phillies' last 11 games.

Hard to argue with how Gabe Kapler is divvying up the playing time. Altherr is still hitting just .180 through 211 plate appearances, while Williams has hit .263 with an .833 OPS since May 1.

It was also telling that with the game tied and a man on third with one out in the seventh inning, Kapler opted to use Valentin instead of Altherr to pinch-hit for Nola.

Up next

The Phillies are on Sunday Night Baseball for the first time since Aug. 4, 2013.

They face the Nationals on ESPN at 8:07 p.m. with Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08) opposing Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta allowed six runs while lasting just one inning when he last faced the Nats here on May 4. Without that game, his season ERA would be 3.45.

Rodriguez is making his second career start. He allowed five runs in five innings and was taken deep twice Tuesday vs. the Orioles.