Phillies

2 buddies and the Bamboo Man keep Phillies loose and in the win column

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2 buddies and the Bamboo Man keep Phillies loose and in the win column

A toweled Hector Neris entered the Phillies' clubhouse, saw a group of reporters congregating around Maikel Franco, looked over and gave his buddy a quick message.

"Franco,” the perpetually grinning Neris said, “make sure to say something funny.”

Neris and Franco, two friends who have been through a hell of a lot together as Phillies. They've seen years with no expectations and high expectations. They've played important roles and lost their roles. They've been key cogs and been demoted. 

On Tuesday night, both were instrumental in another Phillies comeback win over the Mets. Franco hit the game-winning two-run homer in the sixth inning of the 7-5 victory, a night after also delivering the decisive two-run homer in the middle innings.

Neris picked up four huge outs for his 16th save in 17 chances. With the tying run on base and one out in the ninth, Neris struck out young lefty Dom Smith and got veteran righty Wilson Ramos to ground out to second base.

Smith and Michael Conforto in particular, were fooled by Neris' trademark splitter. They both expanded the strike zone and looked bad doing it. Neris feasts on over-aggressive hitters who can't lay off the split.

"It's a very unique pitch," manager Gabe Kapler said, "one that it doesn't matter how many times you see it, it still doesn't give you an advantage."

Kapler was ejected in the sixth inning when he argued a warning from umpire Joe West after Scott Kingery was hit by a pitch near the head. The manager was still in a good mood after the win and didn't necessarily think the Rhys Hoskins-Jacob Rhame episode two months ago played a role.

After the Phillies' win Monday, Jean Segura had called Franco one of the Phillies' key bats. Segura talked about how much he enjoys relying on Franco on the left side of the infield. He mentioned how Franco can change a game with one swing and how when he, in particular, is going right, the Phillies' offense is just a lot better. 

It's true. Franco offers offensive upside that veteran utilityman Sean Rodriguez does not. Franco can pop one at any moment. He can pound a mistake. He can also pound a hittable pitch into the ground to the left side, as he had done far too frequently the last six weeks, but when Franco is on and feeling confident, he's dangerous.

"It makes me feel great," Franco said of Segura's comments last night. "I've been around good teammates. They've been great and supporting me. That makes me push myself every single day and perform and do everything I can to get better and make adjustments."

After one of the Phillies’ four home runs, Franco and Segura were on the field to do their handshakes with Rhys Hoskins. As Segura turned back toward the dugout, Franco took a couple hops toward him and gave him a hard noogie. 

This team is not playing tight. 

The Phillies picked up their starting pitcher for the second straight night. Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin have combined to allow 11 runs in 11 innings against the Mets but both have received wins because the Phils' bats came alive during the half-innings they were pinch-hit for.

The Mets held early leads in both games. The Phillies could have gone into a shell after the seven straight losses that preceded this series. Instead, the lineup finally looked the lineup it was supposed to be.

"It was exactly what we needed the last couple nights," Arrieta said. "It wasn't ideal from a pitching perspective the last couple nights from me and Zach, but sometimes that's what you need. The guys picked both of us up. Would have loved to have thrown the ball better. There were some really good things that happened, and some not so good. But we were able to kind of put it behind us in a positive way with a win and a chance to get a couple more before we go on the road. So the guys are feeling good about it."

The guys are also feeling good about these bamboo plants. First, one was in Brad Miller's locker Monday. Then a giant bamboo plant was on the table in the middle of the clubhouse Tuesday. Arrieta said Tuesday night he might put one in his locker tomorrow. Kapler said there might be one in every locker. 

Miller is doing more than keeping the mood light. He gave the Phils insurance with a pinch-hit solo shot Tuesday and is 3 for 4 with two extra-base hits as a pinch-hitter.

"They're going to think I'm crazy going back to that place tomorrow for the third day in a row but I told them I would see them tomorrow," Miller said. "They're going to keep hiking the prices up on me. It was worth it.

"Everyone has been awesome from Day One. I showed up and we went through a tough stretch, but nobody seemed to panic or anything. The first night, I saw a bunch of guys out at dinner and tried to join in and work hard and earn their respect and get to the party and enjoy it. It's been fun."

 

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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