Phillies

Phillies offense hits rock bottom, Gabe Kapler says hitting coach is connecting with team

Phillies offense hits rock bottom, Gabe Kapler says hitting coach is connecting with team

SAN FRANCISCO — John Middleton must have wanted to throw a brick through his television screen watching this one.

Think about it. The Phillies owner spent over $400 million and gave up a top pitching prospect to add talent over the winter. The idea was for the Phillies to make a big surge in the standings and go out and get that one finishing piece at the trade deadline. You know, someone like Madison Bumgarner.

But by the time the deadline came around, the underperforming Phillies had so many holes that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to cripple the farm system to add one pitcher when they really needed three of them. And besides, Bumgarner stayed put as the San Francisco Giants made a July charge into playoff contention.

So there they were Thursday night, the underachieving Phillies squaring off against Bumgarner in the first game of an important four-game series. The Phillies needed a win to stop a blood letting that started with consecutive losses in Arizona the previous two nights. What they got was another in a series of embarrassing defeats. The Phils were held to one hit — one stinking hit — and had just three base runners in a hang-your-head, 5-0 loss to the Giants (see observations).

The loss was the Phillies’ third in a row and sixth in the last nine games. They had entered the day tied for the second NL wild-card spot, but are now off the pace by a half-game. At 59-56, they have the same record as the New York Mets, who once appeared to be dead and buried in the standings but have rallied into contention with 13 wins in the last 14 games. The Phils, 26-33 since ending the month of May up by three games in the NL East, are going in the opposite direction and could be alone in fourth place in the division by the end of play Friday night.

How do you stop this spiral?

“By believing in our players, but keeping the mood light but focused, by never panicking and by trusting that the talent is in this room — and we believe it is,” manager Gabe Kapler said after his team’s latest defeat. “These guys know how good they are and we know that their true talent is going to rise to the top.”

The only thing that rose Thursday night was Mr. Middleton's ire.

The Giants came into the game having just been swept in three games by the Washington Nationals. Bumgarner needed to be a stopper and he was. He featured mostly fastballs and cutters. The fastball topped out at just 92 mph but that and good location on the pitch was enough to hold the Phils to one hit over seven innings. He walked one and struck out three. Cesar Heranandez had the Phillies’ only hit, a pinch-hit single with one out in the sixth inning.

“Bumgarner had a fastball, it wasn’t a high velocity fastball, but it certainly was heavy and he was able to put the ball where he wanted to put it in keeping our hitters off balance,” Kapler said. “On the flip side, we didn’t make him work hard enough. It’s as simple as that. We have to make good pitchers work hard and fight for every inch and we weren’t able to run his pitch count up at all and he stayed efficient and attacked the strike zone and we weren’t able to make the adjustment.”

Bumgarner got 21 called strikes.

“He was locating,” Kapler said. “Our guys were prepared to attack the fastball and the cutter and Bumgarner was putting it where he wanted to put it.

“At the same time, we have to find ways to scratch and claw to reach base and we weren’t able to do that. It’s not acceptable.”

The Phils have had huge problems hitting with runners in scoring position the last two weeks. They’ve scored one run the last two games and that came on a ninth-inning solo homer by Bryce Harper when the club was already down 6-0 to Arizona on Wednesday night.

The offense has been inconsistent all season, but its recent struggles are reason to wonder if hitting coach John Mallee is connecting with the hitters and if his message is getting through.

Kapler was asked if it was.

“Yes,” he said, offering nothing else on the topic.

Offense wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Phillies. The usually dependable Aaron Nola had a difficult start. He gave up three runs in the third inning and there was no coming back from that, not with this offense.

“He had a hard time commanding the fastball in the third inning, a hard time putting hitters away,” Kapler said. “It wasn’t his best outing.”

He wasn’t the Lone Ranger in that regard.

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Checking in on Phillies' division rivals as camps fully open

Checking in on Phillies' division rivals as camps fully open

A year ago at this time, the Bryce Harper-Manny Machado saga was still plodding along as full-squad workouts began.

Phillies players, the fans, those covering it — everyone felt the fatigue.

The rest of the division?

• The Nationals were preparing for their first year without Harper, though their first with Patrick Corbin, who signed a $140 million contract that took all of 10 months to pay off permanently.

• The Braves were gearing up to defend a division title after taking a big risk on Josh Donaldson, who had missed 49.1 percent of games the previous two seasons to injury. Donaldson was the only free-agent addition the Braves made in 2019 until bringing in Dallas Keuchel in June.

• The main intrigue with the Mets at this time last year was what they'd do with their starting pitchers. Would they capitalize on Noah Syndergaard's value and deal him? What about free-agent-to-be Zack Wheeler? The Mets had a streaky season, a terrible first-year experience with Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, a weird trade deadline, and ended up three games out of the playoffs, with Marcus Stroman in the rotation and Wheeler likely to leave.

• And of course, the Marlins — the 2019 Marlins who won 17.5% of their games against the Phillies. They were 57-105 overall, 10-9 against the Phils.

Here's what changed this offseason:

Phillies

Additions: Zack Wheeler, Didi Gregorius, manager Joe Girardi

Subtractions: Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, Brad Miller, Drew Smyly, Jason Vargas

Returning from injury: Andrew McCutchen, Jake Arrieta, Adam Morgan, Seranthony Dominguez(?)

Two huge, necessary additions but still so much uncertainty because the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation and almost every role in the bullpen is a question mark.

Mets

Additions: Dellin Betances, Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha, manager Carlos Beltran Luis Rojas

Subtractions: Zack Wheeler, Todd Frazier

Returning from injury: Yoenis Cespedes

The Mets are entering 2020 feeling good about the back end of their bullpen. If Diaz rebounds, this really could be a lights-out unit with the underrated Seth Lugo pitching the seventh, Betances the eighth and Diaz the ninth. 

The Mets badly need at least one good bullpen year to maximize Jacob deGrom's value. Somehow, someway, they went 14-18 in each of the last two seasons in deGrom's starts despite his league-best 2.05 ERA.

They also have to feel like anything they get in 2020 from Cespedes or Cano is a plus. Cano was a disaster last season and Cespedes is finally in camp after missing most of the last three seasons because of injury.

A big question is whether Pete Alonso is actually a 50-home run hitter. Poll Mets fans or those around the team and they'll say yes. I'm skeptical. What if he hits 32 this season? How much different do the Mets look if he's just a pretty good power hitter and not a perennial high-30s/low-40s guy like Carlos Delgado?

Why couldn't Matt Klentak find a J.D. Davis in any of the last several offseasons?

Braves

Additions: Marcell Ozuna, Cole Hamels, Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Subtractions: Josh Donaldson, Julio Teheran, Brian McCann, Matt Joyce

Returning from injury: Darren O'Day, A.J. Minter

Hamels is injured and probably won't be able to contribute until at least a month or so into the season. That hurts the Braves, who lost Keuchel to the White Sox and will again be reliant on young starting pitchers Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Sean Newcomb. They need to hope that 2019 was a blip and not a trend for Mike Foltynewicz.

The Braves have the two best position players in the division in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman. Ozuna helps mitigate the loss of Donaldson but Ozuna is not the hitter that 2019 Donaldson was for the Braves.

Don't let the generic name fool ya, Will Smith is a nasty lefty who struck out 167 in 118 innings the last two seasons and has been one of the most reliable closers over that time.

Nationals

Additions: Will Harris, Starlin Castro, Eric Thames

Subtractions: Anthony Rendon, Gerardo Parra, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams

When you lose Anthony Rendon you cannot possibly be as good as you were a year ago. Especially when Rendon had a near-perfect year for a baseball player, hitting .319/.412/.598 with the most doubles in the league, the most RBI in the majors despite missing 16 games, a career-high in home runs and only six more strikeouts than walks.

Washington's biggest move was retaining Stephen Strasburg, but this new seven-year, $245 million contract for Strasburg seems destined to play out poorly. He had a storybook contract year, staying the healthiest he'd been in five years, leading the league in innings and wins and then totally dominating in the postseason. This contract runs through his age-38 season.

The Nats could still match last season's 93 wins, particularly because they're unlikely to experience two straight months of bullpen meltdowns as they did last April and May.

You have to wonder about the World Series hangovers for Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. Not only did they combine for 583 regular-season innings, they also appeared in a combined 20 playoff games. The Nats rode their horses harder in October than any team in years. It worked out magnificently for them, but this wouldn't be the first set of rotation-mates to experience lingering soreness from all that October stress.

Marlins

Additions: Corey Dickerson, Matt Kemp, Matt Joyce, Francisco Cervelli, Brandon Kintzler

Subtractions: Starlin Castro, Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker, Martin Prado, Sergio Romo

The Marlins made two trades in 2019 that you just have to snicker at. Midway through then-28-year-old reliever Nick Anderson's breakout year, they traded him to Tampa, because he was apparently too good. Anderson now looks like one of the five best relievers in baseball. He struck out 110 batters in 65 innings and had a 2.11 ERA after the deadline with Tampa. 

As a player with just one year of big-league experience but immense arm talent, Anderson might have the most appealing contractual situation of any reliever in the majors.

Miami also, midway through Zac Gallen's promising rookie year, traded the 24-year-old right-handed starting pitcher to Arizona for 21-year-old shortstop Jazz Chisholm, who spent the year at Double A. Some really like Chisholm's upside and think the Marlins made a shrewd move trading for a player who might better fit their next window to contend. Maybe that is true.

In the meantime, those two moves made things easier on the rest of the NL East.

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Phillies leadoff man Andrew McCutchen feels good, but will he be ready for opening day?

Phillies leadoff man Andrew McCutchen feels good, but will he be ready for opening day?

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Eight months after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, Andrew McCutchen says he feels good and is "right in the spot I need to be."

But will he be in the Phillies' starting lineup March 26 in Miami?

"That's the plan for me," McCutchen said Monday. "The plan is for me to be ready."

It's not clear if Phillies officials share McCutchen's optimism about being ready for opening day. They won't commit to anything until they get a good look at the 33-year-old outfielder's progress over the next five weeks of spring training. It's possible that McCutchen will be ready. But he won't be rushed. If he needs an extra few weeks to be ready, he'll get it. He's too important to the Phillies' season hopes to rush things.

"Every week, we're going to make an evaluation of where he's at and what he's ready to handle the next week," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's getting stronger every day. We just have to go week by week."

McCutchen is hitting and doing supervised fielding drills. He's doing plenty more behind the scenes.

"I'm getting here at 8 o'clock and leaving at 3, and I'm not sitting down," he said. "I'm on the go. Like right now, I'm about to get in the pool to warm up, and just grind today. That's what I'm going to continue to do until I'm ready."

McCutchen tore the ACL while trying to get out of a rundown on June 3 in San Diego. He found himself in that run-down when teammate Jean Segura failed to run out a popup.

Segura revealed Monday that the incident took a toll on him mentally last season.

McCutchen absolved Segura then and continues to do so now.

"It's all good," McCutchen said. "We talked about it. We're fine. Move on. Learn from it. I guarantee next time he's going to run to first.

"That's the end of it. It's not like I was mad at him or upset at him. That was a baseball play. I could have gone out the next inning and tried to stop and catch a ball and had my knee blow out. We don't know. I'm not blaming him for anything.

"We're not all perfect. I'm not going to sit here and say I run out every ball or that I play the game hard every single time. You intend to do it, but sometimes it doesn't work that way. There's no ill will toward him. I'm not blaming him. No one is perfect, so just move on from it."

Losing McCutchen last season was a huge loss that the Phillies never recovered from. He had a .378 on-base percentage, second-best in the majors among leadoff men, when he went down on June 3. Phillies leadoff men had a paltry .295 on-base percentage the rest of the season and that ranked 29th in baseball over that span.

If McCutchen does not open the season on time, the Phillies could use Jay Bruce, Roman Quinn or Adam Haseley in left field. Quinn and Haseley are also candidates to play center field. Bryce Harper is set in right field. The Phils also have a number of players vying for spots on the bench and one of them could emerge as a safety net for McCutchen. Time will tell.

When he's ready to go, McCutchen believes he will be stronger than ever because of his intense rehab work.

"When I come back, I'll be stronger," he said. "It's like basically going in the gym every day and doing a lower body workout. You're going in every single day and I'm there for five hours a day and doing a lower-body workout. If I wasn't injured, I'd be doing a lower body workout every two or three days, but now it's every day, it's repetitive. It's over and over and over. It's like all you're doing is getting yourself stronger."

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