Phillies' playoff chances could be doomed by inability to beat bad teams

Phillies' playoff chances could be doomed by inability to beat bad teams


MIAMI — The National League East race might end up being decided by the two worst teams in the division.

Or, more precisely, the performance of the top two teams in the division against the two worst teams in the division.

The Atlanta Braves have cleaned up on the Miami Marlins and New York Mets.

The Phillies are below .500 against those two clubs.

The Braves, even after blowing a 7-1 lead and losing to the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday afternoon, maintained their three-game lead in the division because the Phillies could not cash in on a juicy chance to pick up a game in the standings Wednesday night. The Phils watched Atlanta’s loss on the clubhouse television. They licked their lips, took the field and came up small in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins and rookie right-hander Sandy Alcantara (see first take).

“Whether Atlanta wins or Atlanta loses, a loss always stings and it’s our responsibility to turn the page quickly and start preparing for the next game,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We have to have short memories, be resilient and bounce back immediately.”

Time is of the essence. There are just 23 games left and the Phillies play their next three, beginning Friday night, in New York against the Mets. The Phillies have struggled against the Mets, losing eight of 13 meetings. The Phils haven’t lit it up against the Marlins, either. They are 9-7 against them.

While the Phillies are a combined 14-15 against the Mets and Marlins, the Braves are 26-9 against those teams.

That could end up being the big difference maker in this division race.

The Marlins dismantled their team in the offseason, sold off talent and entered a rebuilding mode. They were primed for plucking. But the Phils won just three of nine games in Miami this season. They have three more games against the Marlins in Philadelphia.

“I don't know,” Rhys Hoskins said. “I think the Mets seem to have our number, too. But when you look at the teams like the Red Sox — we've obviously played them pretty well.

“I don't know what it is. Sometimes you can't really put your finger on it. For whatever reason this year, we haven't been able to put them away when we've had the opportunity.”

This would seem to have been a good opportunity for the Phils. They had some momentum after a 9-4 win on Tuesday. They had Nick Pivetta on the mound and he had dominated the Marlins in two previous starts this season. The Marlins had a rookie on the mound making just his second big-league start. Kapler constructed his lineup with an eye toward early offense. He gave Carlos Santana his first start at third base in four years and batted him leadoff. That made room for Justin Bour and his power bat  to play first base and bat second.

The Phillies generated just one run but none against Alcantara, whose hard, darting sinker was murder for seven innings. The Phils ran into a costly out on the bases when Roman Quinn got doubled off first base in the eighth. That really hurt because Jose Bautista followed with a two-out pinch-hit double and scored on a hit by Asdrubal Cabrera.

“It was just bad base running on my part,” Quinn said.

The Phillies put two runners on base with one out in the ninth, but got nothing when Miami reliever Drew Steckenrider struck out pinch-hitter Pedro Florimon and Quinn to end the game.

The Phillies have scored two or fewer runs in five of their last six games. They have lost four of those six. They are really missing Hoskins’ bat. He struck out three times and is 0 for his last 11. He is hitting just .170 in his last 30 games. Maybe Thursday’s off day will help him because he needs to turn it around quickly if the Phils are going to have a chance.

“Tough game all around,” Hoskins said. “Good teams find a way to flush tough losses and move their focus to the next day.”

Pivetta did not help his cause by walking the leadoff man in the second inning and hitting the leadoff man in the fourth. Both of those base runners became runs and the offense could not bail out Pivetta.

“Their starting pitcher did a tremendous job,” Pivetta said. “At the end of the day, I was the guy that gave up two runs, so it’s on me."

Pivetta watched the Braves lose. He knew the stakes.

“We all knew what was going on," he said. "That’s a game I personally need to step up and shut it down against a Marlins club. But that’s just how baseball goes sometimes. It’s on me. I walked some guys I shouldn’t have walked, hit some batters I shouldn’t have hit and we lost the game.”

And a chance to pull within two games in the division with a trip to Citi Field — where they are 2-4 this season — on deck.

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Bryce Harper, Jake Arrieta, the infield puzzle ... lots going on in Phillies camp Tuesday

Bryce Harper, Jake Arrieta, the infield puzzle ... lots going on in Phillies camp Tuesday

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Tuesday should be an interesting day in Phillies camp.

Bryce Harper will make his spring debut. He is slated to play five innings against the Toronto Blue Jays at Spectrum Field.

Jake Arrieta, healthy and upbeat after having his elbow surgically cleaned out last season, will make his first start of the spring in the game.

Forty-five miles south, in Bradenton, the Phillies will play a split-squad game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lefty Ranger Suarez, a dark horse candidate for the fifth starting pitcher’s job, will get the start against the Pirates.

Lefty Damon Jones, who emerged as a solid starting pitching prospect last season, is also slated to get some work in that game. Jones struck out 12 batters per nine innings in the minors last season. He is slated to open the season at Triple A but could be in the picture in Philadelphia at some point.

Manager Joe Girardi will preside over the game in Bradenton.

Girardi is making the trip over the Sunshine Skyway because he wants to get a look at Suarez.

He also wants to continue to evaluate Jean Segura’s work at third base. Segura is slated to start at third base in Bradenton and Scott Kingery at second base. The addition of shortstop Didi Gregorius has pushed Segura off shortstop. Segura has experience at second base and is open to playing there. But the team would prefer to use him at third base so Kingery can play second base, his best position. This equation all rides on Segura’s ability to play third.

“It's important I continue to see Segura at third and Kingery at second,” Girardi said.

Monday's game

The Phillies beat Baltimore, 8-7. Mikie Mahtook, Luke Williams, Logan Forsythe and Nick Maton all homered for the Phillies.

Minor-leaguer Carlos De La Cruz, who stands 6-8, got some time in center field for the Phillies.

“I thought that was Ben Simmons out there,” Girardi quipped. “I thought we were getting Ben Simmons an at-bat.”

Girardi loved the work of minor-league catcher Rafael Marchan.

“My favorite part of the game was Marchan,” Girardi raved. “He's the block master. The master. That might have been the best exhibition of blocking I have ever seen in one game.”

That’s high praise from Girardi, who caught for 15 seasons in the majors and was part of three World Series championship teams.

Marchan, who turns 21 on Tuesday, played in Single A last season. He is considered an excellent defender.

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This is a recording: Vince Velasquez seeks efficiency

This is a recording: Vince Velasquez seeks efficiency

CLEARWATER, Fla. – In four seasons with the Phillies, Vince Velasquez has teased with his potential and frustrated with his inconsistency.

But at least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

Standing in front of his locker at Spectrum Field on Monday afternoon, Velasquez made a pack of reporters break into laughter after his spring debut against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I threw 26 pitches in two innings – which is a shocker,” he said comically.

Running high pitch counts early in games has been one of the reasons for Velasquez’ frustrating inconsistency.

“The past three or four years, it’s always been an issue,” the 27-year-old right-hander said.

He’s trying to address the shortcoming – and several others – this spring under new pitching coach Bryan Price, who just might be the most popular guy in camp right now, at least with a pitching staff that is eating up everything he has to say, especially when it comes to pitching down in the strike zone.

“I’ve developed a lot of confidence with Bryan and really trust in his work,” Velasquez said. “I’ve told you guys so many times that I have that confidence to be that pitcher and I think Bryan is the guy who is going to pull that out of me.”

When Velasquez says, “that pitcher,” he means, that starting pitcher. He knows he’s in a battle for the fifth starter’s job. He knows about all the talk of possibly ending up in the bullpen when camp breaks.

But he wants to start.

“I know what the task is at hand,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what I have to do to earn that spot. Today was a good display of what I can be. It seemed like everything was working in my favor. I walked the first guy and then got some ground balls. I executed pitches down in the zone.”

Velasquez allowed just one hit, a walk and he struck out one in his two innings of work. The Phillies won the game, 8-7.

Velasquez is competing mostly with Nick Pivetta for the No. 5 starter’s job. Lefty Ranger Suarez, who will get a start Tuesday against the Pirates in Bradenton, is also in the mix.

Manager Joe Girardi has stressed that the competition for jobs has not really started yet, that the first couple of starts are a time to prepare for the competition that will come in March. But he is clearly watching. He liked what he saw of Velasquez on Monday. He especially liked the economy of pitches.

“He was very efficient,” Girardi said. “That's how you get deep in games. If you're throwing 20 pitches every inning, it's not a very long night.”

At least not for the starter.

Sometimes it is for the team.

Girardi mentioned how much he liked seeing Velasquez execute pitches down in the strike zone. Last year, Velasquez was encouraged to work the top of the strike zone. He has the giddy-up on his fastball to do that, but locating the pitch was a problem and poorly located pitches up in the zone turn into trouble and short outings.

“He got outs down in the zone, not just up in the zone, which he's done a lot in the past,” Girardi said. “But he got outs down in the zone. Because he did that, he was pretty efficient. He got a strikeout down there. He got a double play down there. So, I was encouraged by what he did.”

Velasquez believes he was too predictable last season, that he got away from throwing his changeup and lived too high in the zone with his fastball. He still wants to elevate and has the stuff to do it, but he also wants to work the lower part of the zone with his fastball like he did Monday.

“I was living at the top of the zone 95 percent of the time,” he said. “Every game plan was always at the top of the zone, so, again, you’ve got to learn how to change speeds and live up and down and in and out.

“I have the weapon to go up in the zone. That pitch just makes it even more useful to go down in the zone. You can’t be too predictable in this game.”

It’s too early to predict whether Velasquez will end up in the rotation or the bullpen. But if his work the rest of the spring is as efficient as it was Monday, he will give Phillies decision-makers something to think about.

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