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.

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With so few options at back of rotation, where do Phillies turn?

With so few options at back of rotation, where do Phillies turn?

ATLANTA — A one-sentence summary of the Phillies' series finale Sunday against the Braves? Sean Rodriguez was by far their best pitcher.

The Phillies were blown out, 15-1, in a game when they used an opener for the second time this season (see observations). Gabe Kapler told Vince Velasquez late Saturday night that he would get the "start," and the plan was to ride Velasquez for 50 to 60 pitches before turning to lefty Cole Irvin.

Velasquez, Irvin, Jerad Eickhoff, none of them came close to getting the job done. All three allowed consistently hard, loud contact. The Braves had nine extra-base hits and three more deep fly balls crushed to the warning track.

"We knew we were gonna bring Cole, we knew we had length out of Jerad and thought we could get 50 to 60 pitches out of Vince," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We did all those things, we just didn't do it effectively."

It was ugly from start to finish, and it again highlighted the Phillies' need to go get a starting pitcher right now. Not on July 10, not on July 20, not on July 31 but now. You can't force another team to trade with you, but let's forget for a minute about the top end of the market, the tier of Matt Boyd, Mike Minor, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke. The Phillies just need another reliable arm that can give them six innings, get through a lineup three times. Maybe that arm comes from the minor-league system.

While it's true that most teams have a shaky fifth starter, most teams also have a few trustworthy arms ahead of them in the rotation. The Phillies do not right now. Aaron Nola has a 4.89 ERA. Jake Arrieta has a 4.31 ERA. Nick Pivetta is trending in the right direction, and Zach Eflin has been very good for much of the season, but this quartet has not collectively performed like a playoff rotation.

One thing looks abundantly clear, though: The Phillies cannot continue with the opener experiment with this personnel. Velasquez doesn't have the command, Irvin and Eickhoff don't have the stuff to keep the Phillies in the game against a lineup as potent as the Braves'.

What happens Friday when this rotation spot comes up again?

"We have a lot of work to do, a lot of discussions to have," Kapler said. "No question about it, we have to be better and we'll discuss it more on the flight to Washington, D.C., and get our ducks in a row.

"We haven't pitched our best recently. I think that we have a better level of play in us in totality and I have trust in our starting pitchers — Nick, Jake, Nola, obviously Eflin has been outstanding. We have a group of guys who have a track record of success and Nick has been sensational since he's back from the minor leagues. There's some confidence there."

The Phils clearly don't have a ton of confidence in Velasquez, Irvin or Eickhoff as starting pitchers or else one of them would have the No. 5 starter's job. Actions always speak louder than words.

Irvin's ERA is 6.84, Eickhoff has allowed 18 home runs in his last 28 innings, and Velasquez hasn't been able to take his team deep into games.

Who is next? Ranger Suarez? Enyel De Los Santos? Ramon Rosso? Adonis Medina? The decision won't be made for several days.

"I think we'll rebound from this with ease," Velasquez said. "I think it's just one of those games where these guys are hot and we've got to tip our caps off to them and keep moving forward. 

"They had a solid month, and we're right on their tails. I don't think it's one of those things where we should necessarily give up as a pitching staff or as an offensive team."

The Braves have been the hottest team in the NL, winning 24 of their last 34 games. And Velasquez does have a point — as well as Atlanta has played of late, as many injuries as the Phillies have, the deficit is only 2½ games. They can make that up in a series. 

But to do so, they need the starting staff to carry them for a bit. It hasn't been able to the way it was the first half of 2018. With so many key relievers injured, with Andrew McCutchen out for the season and Jay Bruce and J.T. Realmuto banged up, that is the unit that must step up. 

Can they do it? Can they keep the Phillies in the game against Patrick Corbin Monday, Max Scherzer Wednesday and Stephen Strasburg Thursday? If not, the gap between the Phillies and the Braves will only grow wider.

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Braves 15, Phillies 1: Braves demolish Phillies, who badly need another SP

Braves 15, Phillies 1: Braves demolish Phillies, who badly need another SP

BOX SCORE 

ATLANTA — The Phillies' need for another starting pitcher has not been more glaring than it was Sunday afternoon in a totally embarrassing 15-1 loss to the Braves.

With no fifth starter currently on the Phillies' roster, Gabe Kapler went with Vince Velasquez as an opener in Sunday's series finale and it did not work.

Velasquez hit Ronald Acuña Jr. on an 0-2 pitch to begin the game, before Dansby Swanson singled and Freddie Freeman hit a two-run double. In all, Velasquez allowed four runs in 2⅓ innings before giving way to Cole Irvin.

Irvin didn't fare any better, giving up a long two-run homer to the second batter he faced, Josh Donaldson, then giving up loud contact the next few frames. Irvin gave up six runs in 3⅔ innings as the Braves built an eight-run lead that only grew and grew.

Jerad Eickhoff, formerly the No. 5 starter, entered next and allowed two more home runs. Eickhoff has been taken deep an astonishing 18 times in his last 28 innings.

The Phillies didn't hit, didn't play good defense and definitely didn't pitch well.

They need to quickly figure out the back of this rotation. Granted, the next time the fifth spot in the rotation comes up is against the lowly Marlins Friday at Citizens Bank Park, but the league just isn't being fooled by Velasquez, Irvin or Eickhoff.

Other options would be Enyel De Los Santos, Ranger Suarez or a pitching prospect like Adonis Medina, who is on the 40-man roster and is on a nice little roll at Double A Reading, going 5-0 with a 1.24 ERA over his last five starts.

The Phillies are 39-32 and 2½ games behind the Braves in the NL East. The Braves are 24-10 in their last 34 games, six games better than the Phillies over that span.

The Phils have lost 10 of their last 16.

Down two starters

The Phillies were without starting catcher J.T. Realmuto and leftfielder Jay Bruce in this one. Realmuto exited Saturday's game after taking a foul ball to the groin and Bruce left with hamstring tightness. Both are day to day and will avoid the injured list. 

It's possible one or both are back in the lineup Monday, though it could be Tuesday.

This is what a deep lineup looks like

Back when the Phillies had Andrew McCutchen and there was still hope/optimism about Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco, they had what looked like one of baseball's deepest lineups. That is no longer the case. On Sunday, the Phils' 5-through-8 hitters were Cesar Hernandez, Nick Williams, Franco and Andrew Knapp. Not going to scare anyone.

The Braves just have a much better lineup. In order:

1) Acuña Jr. is a beast. 

2) Swanson has an OPS over .800.

3) Freeman is one of the two best hitters in the National League. 

4) Donaldson is a former MVP and a dangerous right-handed bat that is starting to get hot. 

5) Nick Markakis is a clutch left-handed hitter who rarely strikes out. 

6) Austin Riley will be in the Rookie of the Year conversation and might win it.

7) Ozzie Albies has blazing speed and at .281, has a higher batting average than every Phillies starter except Scott Kingery.

It helps that the Braves have had eight fewer injuries than the Phillies, none to their current starting lineup. But the gap in offenses right now is impossible to overlook.

Up next

The Phillies are in D.C. to play four games against the Nationals, who are 9-5 in June. The Phils will face all three of the Nationals' top starting pitching trio.

All four games are at 7:05 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia.

Monday: Jake Arrieta (6-5, 4.31) vs. LHP Patrick Corbin (5-5, 4.11)

Tuesday: Zach Eflin (6-6, 2.81) vs. Erick Fedde (1-1, 3.68)

Wednesday: Nick Pivetta (4-1, 5.00) vs. Max Scherzer (5-5, 2.81)

Thursday: Aaron Nola (6-1, 4.89) vs. Stephen Strasburg (7-4, 3.75)

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