Bob McClure

5 years later, Jeff Francoeur remembers Chase Utley having his back on the mound

5 years later, Jeff Francoeur remembers Chase Utley having his back on the mound

We've taken many strolls down Memory Lane during baseball's shutdown, but maybe not one as sad and ugly as this one.

Or, frankly, as humorous.

We're nearing the five-year anniversary of the low point of one of the most dreadful seasons in Phillies history.

Remember 2015? Ninety-nine (bleeping) losses. A season so bad it made Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg run away and hide.

Remember June 16 in Baltimore, the night that sorry season went from bad to completely off the hook?

Literally.

Jeff Francoeur remembers.

And not only because his left butt cheek hurt so much when it was all over.

Truth be told, even though the Phillies lost by the embarrassing score of 19-3 to the Orioles that night to complete their worst road trip in 132 years — yes, 132 — and even though the pitching coach and the team's star player almost dropped the gloves on the mound, Francoeur had a blast.

And he let that be known in the dugout after the seventh inning.

"I told the guys, 'Hey, I'm the only one to put up a donut tonight," the likable former Phillie recalled with a laugh on our Phillies Talk podcast recently. "It was a horrible road trip, the end of a bad time, yet it was kind of funny how it was able to play out. I still laugh when I think about it."

Francoeur spent a dozen years roaming the outfield for eight different big-league teams. Like many top baseball-playing athletes, he pitched in high school and dreamed of taking the mound just one time in the majors.

He was a reserve player during his one season in Philadelphia and more than once in that dismal campaign had reminded skipper Sandberg and pitching coach Bob McClure that he was available for bullpen duty if the team was having a particularly bad night at the office.

"We lost quite a few games in blowout fashion that year, so I was always kind of begging, 'Let me go in the game, let me go in the game,'" Francoeur recalled. "Ryno, to his defense, and I thought it was great, he never really wanted position players to pitch. He'd say, 'We've got enough arms to cover it.'"

But on June 16, 2015, as his team was on its way to completing an 0-8 road trip and his time as Phillies manager was nearing an end, Sandberg was forced to ditch his policy of not using position players on the hill. Jerome Williams had gotten torched and injured in the first inning and the Phillies had rolled through three relievers in the first six innings. 

In the fifth inning, Sandberg sidled up to Francoeur in the dugout.

"You still volunteering?" the manager asked.

"Absolutely!" the wannabe pitcher exclaimed.

As a player, Francoeur had a personal policy of putting his phone away and not checking it when he arrived at the ballpark for his workday. But on this night, he broke his own rule. After learning from Sandberg that he would pitch the seventh inning, he tiptoed into the clubhouse, pulled out his phone and called his wife, Catie, who was watching the game back in Philadelphia.

Catie, who knew her husband would never be near his phone at the ballpark, saw the number pop up and answered the phone in a panic.

"Don't worry," Jeff whispered. "Call my parents, get the DVR ready, I'm coming in the game to pitch."

Francoeur headed to the bullpen in the top of the seventh to warm up. Though he had pitched in high school and once in Triple A, this was different.

"My heart was pounding a mile a minute," he said.

He entered the game in the bottom of the inning. It was hardly a high leverage situation. The Phils trailed by a footballish score of 17-3. The Orioles' line score to that point looked like this: 6 3 3 1 1 3.

So, of course, Francoeur, throwing in the low 90s, had a 1-2-3 inning, the Phillies' first and only one of the night.

Looking for another quick inning, Sandberg sent Francoeur out for the eighth. That's when things went off the hook. Literally. Francoeur gave up a homer to Ryan Flaherty, the Orioles' eighth bomb of the game, then had trouble throwing strikes. He hit a batter. Walked a couple. His pitch count was soaring. Sandberg and McClure wanted to get someone up in the bullpen but they couldn't because the bullpen phone was off the hook. It wasn't until someone in the 'pen noticed McClure waving a white flag that the phone was put back on the hook.

By this time, Francoeur was laboring on the mound and Chase Utley was getting pissed. McClure went to the mound and was joined there by the entire infield. Utley, in no uncertain words, expressed his displeasure for what was going on and the way Francoeur was being pushed. Francoeur said he had one more hitter in him. He got that hitter and the inning — and the ordeal — mercifully ended with two runs in.

Five years later, the image of Utley giving McClure an earful is still fresh.

Was it as tense as it looked?

"Oh, it was worse than that," Francoeur said. "There were probably seven F-bombs in it. I thought those two were about to go right there on the mound. I said, 'This is all we need.' I remember I looked at Chase and thanked him for coming to my defense. I looked at Bob and I said, 'Look, this is my last hitter here,' and luckily, somehow, I got out of that inning. I still don't know how, but I did.

"To Bob's defense, he knew it. He said, 'We've let this get out of control.' But at that point, I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself right there on the mound at Camden Yards. My first inning, that was phenomenal. The eighth inning, I had that coming and I take full responsibility for it."

The clubhouse was tense after that loss, the Phillies' 20th in a 25-game stretch. There were rumblings that big changes were coming, that Andy MacPhail was about to be hired as club president — and, indeed, he was. Sandberg called the loss "ugly," and added, "I almost don't know what to say." McClure denied any friction with Utley. Utley didn't make himself available to reporters after the game.

Francoeur, an upbeat, positive soul, was all of that after the game. His arm was fine. He said he had no issues with anyone and said the Phillies owed the Orioles an ass-whuppin' the next night in Philadelphia.

The Phillies lost that game, too.

Nine days later, Sandberg, worn down by the losing, resigned from the job.

Francoeur played out the rest of the season with the Phillies and was passionate about the team avoiding 100 losses. That is still one of his takeaways from the season. That and the sore left butt cheek.

"Two hours after the game, my left butt cheek was killing me from landing 48 times," he said with a laugh. "I could hardly even get off the train back in Philly.

"But I am the only one who put up a goose egg that night."

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From the depths of an elbow injury 2 years ago, Aaron Nola blooms into an All-Star

From the depths of an elbow injury 2 years ago, Aaron Nola blooms into an All-Star

PITTSBURGH — Two years ago at this time, Aaron Nola was struggling as a pitcher for really the first time in his life. His trademark command had vanished. The bite on his curveball was missing. So was the life on his fastball. Over an eight-start span, he pitched to a 9.82 ERA.

Eventually, the young right-hander was diagnosed with an elbow strain and he did not pitch after July 28. He spent the remainder of the summer and that offseason in a strength and rehabilitation program that in addition to keeping him off the operating table — there was a time when it was feared he would need Tommy John surgery — turned him into one of the best pitchers in baseball.

On Sunday night, just 34 days after his 25th birthday, Nola was honored the way the best pitchers in baseball are honored at this time of year.

He was named to the National League All-Star team and will be the Phillies’ lone representative at the game July 17 in Washington.

“It feels good, my first one,” Nola said of the honor. “I’ve watched it on TV a lot so it will be exciting to see what it’s all about and see all the All-Stars.

“I wasn't really trying to pitch to be an All Star, I was just trying to do my job for the team and try to win for the team and do my part. I've definitely had my ups and downs, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and who I am as a player.”

Nola learned the news in a brief team meeting Sunday.

“It was as proud a moment for this clubhouse as you could possibly imagine," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He earned it and every bit of praise is deserved.”

Nola was the only Phillie named to the team.

The question now is: Will Nola pitch an inning in the game? He is slated to pitch for the Phillies on Monday in New York. After that, his next start would be in Miami on Saturday or Sunday. If it’s Saturday, he could pitch in the All-Star Game. If it’s Sunday, he won’t. Kapler has not yet set his pitching schedule.

“We’re kind of balancing the honor of being in the All-Star Game with the necessity of winning baseball games for the Phillies,” Kapler said. “Our first mission is to set up Noles for long-term health, success in the first half, success in the second half, and also balancing the honor of pitching in the All-Star Game.”

Nola is tied for the league lead with 11 wins. He ranks fifth in strikeouts (116) and sixth in ERA (2.41.)

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. At the time, the Phillies’ system was thin in pitching. Polished, smart and blessed with the ability to command his pitches, Nola was seen as someone who could rise to the majors quickly and become a solid mid-rotation contributor.

He has become so much more than that.

Kapler had seen Nola work for just a few weeks in spring training when he started mentioning him in the same breath as Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young Award winner.

If it takes sustained success over a significant period of time to be called an ace then Nola might be there. Over his last 36 starts, dating to June 22, 2017, he ranks fourth in the majors in innings pitched (233), eighth in ERA (2.70), 10th in WHIP (1.09), eighth in FIP (2.88), 12th in opposing batting (.219) and he is tied for third with 20 of those old-fashioned wins.

Rick Kranitz has witnessed Nola’s rise up close, first as bullpen coach, then as assistant pitching coach and now as pitching coach. He was thrilled to learn that Nola had been named to the All-Star team and made a point to mention how hard former pitching Bob McClure had worked with Nola.

Nola’s growth as a major-league pitcher is actually rooted back in that dark time when he was getting hit hard two years ago and his elbow started aching. (He has actually called the injury “a blessing in disguise.") While on the disabled list, Nola committed himself to an arduous rehab program set up by the Phillies’ injury rehab team. The program included building a stronger athlete, not just healing a strained elbow. Nola came out of the program stronger all over, in his core, his back, his legs, his shoulders.

“The injury changed him, no question,” Kranitz said. “It got him to focus on his legs. He really worked hard on his lower half and got his delivery into his lower half. That has given him a bigger fastball, for sure. He is throwing more with his legs than he ever has. This is a very smart guy. He realized what he had to do for a full major-league season. He got stronger. He’s cut back on some of his between-starts throwing. He knows himself really well. He repeats his delivery. He’s older than he appears, pitching-wise.”

Nola has always had command and an excellent sharp, sweeping curveball. And he also had a changeup in his pocket, though he didn’t need it much because he could get by with his curveball-fastball mix. Over the last couple of seasons while working with McClure and Kranitz, he refined the release point on his changeup and it has become a real weapon. Add in more power on the fastball and his incredible poise on the mound and you’ve got something pretty special.

“He has the ability to throw any pitch in any count,” Kranitz said. “And his makeup is great. He just battles on the mound. He has the ability to reach back for even better stuff when he needs it.”

That happened when Nola faced Baltimore’s Manny Machado in a one-run game with two outs and runners on the corners on Wednesday. With the game on the line and the count 1-1, Nola challenged Machado with a fastball that ran in on the hands and Machado popped it up. The pitch, Nola’s 103rd of the day, completed seven innings of one-run ball.

“Here’s the thing that I think is phenomenal about Aaron,” Kranitz said. “Everyone talks about the third time through a lineup and how much tougher it is. Well, look what he did the third time through that lineup in that game.”

Nola struck out five batters his third time through the Orioles lineup. He scattered three singles and when the Orioles bunched two of them in the seventh and had a chance to turn the game around, Nola challenged Machado and dispatched him.

That’s what an ace does.

That’s what an All-Star does.

Aaron Nola has become both.

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Phillies' coaching staff to become 'free agents' after season finale

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Phillies' coaching staff to become 'free agents' after season finale

Pete Mackanin will not manage the Phillies after Sunday's season finale, but he does have a future with the organization. He will become a front-office adviser next season.

His coaching staff does not have the same clarity.

General manager Matt Klentak told the team's coaches on Friday that they would become "free agents" after the season ended on Sunday.

"He thanked everybody and said everybody did a great job," bench coach Larry Bowa said. "He said whoever the [new] manager might be, we’re going to tell him about our staff and we think you did a good job and it’s going to be up to that manager to interview you. And he said, but if any of you guys want to make calls on Monday, you’re like free agents. And he thanked everybody."

In addition to Bowa, the staff includes pitching coach Bob McClure, assistant pitching coach Rick Kranitz, bullpen coach John McLaren, first base coach Mickey Morandini, third base coach Juan Samuel and hitting coach Matt Stairs, who was interviewed by Klentak and hired last fall.

Bowa, Samuel and Morandini all have deep Phillies roots and were fan favorites during their playing days. They remain so now. Stairs also has Phillies roots. He hit one of the biggest home runs in club history in the 2008 National League Championship Series and connected well with players in his first season on the coaching staff.

It's not clear who will be back in 2018. Maybe some will. Maybe none will.

Bowa, 71, expressed a desire to return to the organization that he has been in for 33 of his 52 years in pro ball.

"My No.1 priority is to stay in this organization," Bowa said. "That’s all I’m going to say about that. That’s No. 1. And if I’m not, then I’ll look for other stuff. But right now, I want to stay in this organization.

"This is my home. This is where I grew up. People recognize me as a Phillie. I just think that, I’m still, age-wise, what, 71, but you guys see me work every day. I’m relentless when it comes to that. So if they have something in mind, I’m going sit down and talk with them and see where it goes."

Would Bowa consider a position off the field?

"You know, I don’t know right now if it’s on or off, as long as it involves the Phillies," said Bowa, who does have broadcasting experience. "I'll do anything. I want to stay in this organization. That's all."

Bowa was surprised that Mackanin was let go.

"Pete did a great job," Bowa said. "He took a really young team – and then we obviously got reinforcements, some good young players – and if you take a look at what he did in the second half, I thought he did a great job. But nothing in baseball – you see everything in baseball – when you’re in baseball a long time, you’re not shocked by anything. Baseball is baseball. That’s the way it is. He’s just a good guy."

Mackanin has always had a great sense of humor. He kept that even as he informed the team on Friday afternoon that he would manage his last game Sunday.

"When Pete was talking, they were pretty somber," Bowa said. "But Pete had a way of loosening them up. His last comment, he says, 'I want you guys to play hard like you have been. If you win the last three games they might want to change their mind.'"

Bowa laughed.

"Typical Pete," he said.

And, yes, the Phillies did win Friday night (see observations). They are 36-37 since the All-Star break with two games remaining.