Phillies

Phillies' Odubel Herrera does some between-the-ears work — and it shows

Phillies' Odubel Herrera does some between-the-ears work — and it shows

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Despite having just 12 plate appearances coming into Sunday’s Grapefruit League game against the Baltimore Orioles, Odubel Herrera sure looked locked-in.

He singled, doubled and homered on his way to a four-RBI day in the Phillies’ 11-4 win.

Opening day is Thursday.

“I’m ready,” Herrera said. “I want to start the year hot. I want to get going quickly. It’s important to the team and it’s important to me.”

Herrera missed significant time early in camp, first with a hamstring injury then a flu bug that visited a number of players this spring.

Herrera offered up Sunday’s performance at the plate as proof that he didn’t just sit around the athletic trainer’s room for three weeks before playing in his first Grapefruit League game March 16.

He worked in the batting cage, seeing pitches and fine-tuning his swing.

He worked in the weight room.

He also did some between-the-ears work.

While his mates were on the field, he spent some time in the video room with Geoff Miller, the team’s mental skills coach.

“We did exercises where I could visualize the game and kind of not lose time, as if I was still playing,” Herrera said through Diego Ettedgui, the team’s Spanish-language translator.

According to Herrera, Miller cued up videos of some of Herrera’s stellar performances last season.

“Maybe we’d watch a really good at-bat that I had in a game,” Herrera said. “He’d ask me to go through the at-bat. ‘What were you thinking in the at-bat? What was your approach? Try to visualize yourself in that moment again. How can you repeat what you did there because you were successful?’ Little tactics to build confidence.”

Herrera, 27, is one of the Phillies’ most talented players. He made the NL All-Star team in 2016 and signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension later that year. In addition to being talented, however, Herrera is also inconsistent. Last season was a case in point. He hit .361 with a .989 OPS in his first 40 games. Over the final two months of the season, he hit just .189 with a .530 OPS and lost playing time to Roman Quinn.

Herrera’s poor finish last season earned him a mandate from general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler: Get into better physical shape. Herrera reported to camp down 20 pounds in February. The bosses also wanted to see Herrera become more focused mentally. Herrera said he’s embracing the mental side of the game more now.

“I feel like I need to take advantage of everything that can help me or the team,” he said.

Kapler has seen improved focus in Herrera’s behind-the-scenes work this spring — and on the field Sunday.

“It’s really interesting how his performance coincides with his engagement so strongly,” Kapler said. “When he’s locked in from every angle, he just plays great baseball. He looks like one of the best players on the field all the time and I think that’s what is happening right now for him.

“We want to maintain this level of focus. It’s wonderful to do it in spring training. Our expectation is that he continues to maintain that focus and concentration and that high level of play throughout the season.”

If Herrera needs a reason to be motivated to maintain his sharp mental focus, there is one getting at-bats at the minor-league complex. Quinn will open the season on the disabled list, but he won’t be out long. There is no landing spot in left or right field for Herrera. Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper are going to play. If Herrera wants to stay in the lineup, he has to lock down the center field job with more performances like Sunday’s.

We’ll begin finding out if he can do that Thursday.

“I feel like this will be a really good year for me and the Phillies and hopefully we can make something special happen,” Herrera said.

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

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

Aaron Nola had no chance at seeing where the ball landed.

Not many did, unless you were a fan leisurely strolling through the center-field concourse and enjoying the amenities of Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.

"I think it went over the stadium, from where I was sitting," Nola said. "It was a long one."

That's how powerfully Bryce Harper struck his first-inning home run in the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see observations). The ball left his bat at 114.1 miles per hour, traveled 466 feet and cleared the brick walls in center field.

It was loud and it made the sellout crowd of 42,354 fans louder.

"I think just as a fan, you just stop and watch the distance of the ball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think we saw a ball go that far to center field all year last year and certainly not this year. That's rare territory. Pretty impressive."

Harper pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela. The swing consisted of everything you want to see from Harper, who is 5 for 15 (.333) over his last four games with the homer and three doubles.

He's staying back and driving the ball.

"I think he's beginning to feel it," Kapler said. "I think part of that comes from the work he's been doing with [hitting coach] John Mallee, specifically being a little bit taller on his backside and his hands being a little bit closer to his body."

Harper didn't want to make too much about the distance of his home run. He remembered some advice from a former manager and five-time All-Star.

"Matt Williams always used to tell me, 'It's not how far, it's how many you hit,'" Harper said. "I'm just trying to go about it the right way every single day, doing things out there that help this team win. Just putting the bat to the ball and trying to win games.

Harper has eight home runs and 28 RBIs in 45 games. He has a .371 on-base percentage and is second in baseball to only Mike Trout with 34 walks.

However, he's hitting .230 and was 10 for his last 70 (.143) prior to this 5-for-15 stretch. The Phillies are seeing positive signs, though, from Harper's swing.

"We all believed he was going to break out of what he was in," Nola said. "Guy works hard, works hard at what he does. We've all seen what he's done in his career. Nobody is pressing over him, we know he's the gamer that he is and he does a lot to help the team.

On Saturday, it was a walk, a double and vicious contact on the first pitch he saw.

"I think Harp is best when he's gap to gap," Kapler said. "Every once in a while, he's out in front and pulls the ball down the line. He's at his best when he's hitting high line drives into the gaps, and the ones that he gets just underneath go into the seats or in this case, over everything in center field."

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

The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The sun was beaming and Aaron Nola was in attack mode, letting the ball rip through the 78-degree heat.

Just like the days back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

"It's hot as hell down there in the summer," Nola said with a smile about his hometown.

It wasn't quite that hot Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, but Nola looked at home. He looked like himself, the Nola everybody watched in 2018 when he finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Or on second thought …

"Not just the 2018 version, but the best version of the 2018 version," manager Gabe Kapler said.

As the weather turns to warmer temperatures, the man with the most important right arm on the first-place Phillies could be turning into form. It sure appeared that way Saturday as he struck out a career-high-tying 12 batters to pick apart the Rockies in the Phillies' 2-1 win (see observations).

Nola delivered six innings of one-run ball in 106 pitches. He was firing from the get-go, striking out the side in the first inning on 13 pitches. All three punchouts were looking and punctuated by fastballs.

Five days ago from the same mound, Nola needed 38 pitches to finish the first inning against the Brewers. The weather was miserable, a wet 48 degrees at first pitch. He lasted just three frames, throwing 84 pitches in a no-decision.

That performance is now safely buried in the past.

"He was sharp, he was electric, he was running his fastball back over the plate off of the inside," Kapler said. "The curveball was sharp from the outset. When his curveball is good, you see lots of swings and misses, you see empty swings, and that's what was happening today for him."

Nola has a Louisiana coolness to him. The 25-year-old is laid-back, but he's laser-focused.

It's why the Phillies haven't been too worried about his 4.86 ERA entering Saturday or his pinpoint command not being all there through nine starts.

"When I've had conversations with Aaron after the starts that haven't been great, he's so consistent in talking about his process and that being the thing that he can control and the work that he does between starts," Kapler said. "He never comes off of that position. He doesn't cry in his soup, he's not thinking about the last outing that he had, he's already on to the next one. I think the reason that we saw him come out like lightning today is because of the work that he did between starts."

Nola improved to 4-0 with a 4.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 21 walks. He's 10 starts into the 2019 season and is only warming. Still, the Phillies have led the NL East and are just starting to see his best around mid-May.

"That's what I remember when I was with the Nats, facing that," Bryce Harper said. "It's getting hot out there, he's from Baton Rouge, so he likes pitching in hot weather, warm weather."

A quiet competitor like Nola knew Saturday's effort was possible, even with his previous start still fresh.

"It's baseball, anything happens," Nola said. "Last outing, I never threw 80-some pitches in three innings. I've never done it before, but it happens. Things can change really quick. Always got to trust what you're doing and keep working hard through the ups and downs."

That warm weather didn't hurt, either.

"It felt good outside," Nola said. "I got a good sweat on, I like sweating when I'm out there."

The Phillies will like Nola in the summer.

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