Maikel Franco

No Manny, no problem — these Phillies believe they're good enough to keep winning

No Manny, no problem — these Phillies believe they're good enough to keep winning

BOX SCORE

The Phillies did not win the Manny Machado sweepstakes and, for one night at least, it didn’t really matter. The team’s offense showed up big in an 11-5 win over the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night (see first take).

“There's a lot of teams out there that wanted Machado because he's pretty much going to help anybody," Jake Arrieta said after the game. "But we've gotten into the position we are with the guys we have. 

"Would it have been cool to have a guy like that? Yeah. On the flip side, it gives other guys more opportunity to show they can produce at a high level and help us continue the way we’ve been playing.”

Arrieta got the ball in the first game back from the All-Star break, but he did not produce at a high level. He did not make it out of the fourth inning and allowed five runs. His teammates bailed him out, though, scoring six runs in the second inning and four more in the eighth as the Phils maintained their half-game lead on Atlanta in the NL East and improved to 54-42.

The crowd was 30,034, so folks are beginning to notice the progress that this team has made.

The Phillies played sloppy ball early in the game. Arrieta and catcher Jorge Alfaro both made errors. There was a wild pitch. Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco both ran the bases a little recklessly.

But the Phils were able to play over these flaws because the bullpen came up huge with 5 2/3 shutout innings — rookie Austin Davis got his first big-league win — and the offense delivered 12 hits, including a huge, game-changing, three-run homer by Carlos Santana in the bottom of the second inning.

It was Santana’s 15th homer. The Phillies will need more power from him in the middle of the order as the second half unfolds. The need for pop is the reason the Phillies pursued Machado, who ended up in Los Angeles.

“Great player, man,” de facto team captain Rhys Hoskins said. “The Dodgers got a great player.

“But I think we’ve always thought that we can surprise a lot of people with the people we have in this room. We have a lot of talent. There hasn’t really been a time this year when we’ve all clicked at the same time, which I think is pretty exciting. And it’s going to happen at some point this year, hopefully for a long period of time. We’re in first place and that hasn’t happened yet, so that’s exciting.”

Manager Gabe Kapler began the day brushing off questions about Machado and expressing faith in his team as it is currently constructed.

“I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the men in that room,” he said. “We have everything we need. If we make additions — fantastic. But what we have is all we need. I’m really impressed with the group. We’re in first place for a reason. We didn’t get there with anybody but the men in that clubhouse right now.”

Santana echoed those comments after the game.

“Machado is a great player, but we believe in what we have here,” he said. “We have great talent. I know we have a lot of younger players, and I know sometimes people don't feel good about Philadelphia, but we believe.”

Santana and Arrieta are two of only a few Phillies players who’ve been involved in a pennant race previously. Arrieta had pitched well in his previous three starts before allowing six hits and three walks in 3 1/3 innings Friday night. He will need to pitch better than that if the Phils are going to stay in the race — and he knows it.

“When you’re behind early like that, it’s just really nice to see the team be able to pick you up,” Arrieta said. “I didn’t really have much tonight. They picked me up, and that’s something that I intend to do when it’s my opportunity to do that for our guys, when we have that need.”

Arrieta did make an important offensive contribution when he beat out a potential inning-ending double-play ball to keep the second inning alive. Cesar Hernandez and Hoskins (RBI) then worked walks against Clayton Richard before Herrera stroked a two-run single and Santana blasted his three-run homer. All the runs came with two outs with walks filling the bases and big hits clearing them.

The Phillies erupted for four runs in the bottom of the eighth, building a two-run lead to a six-run lead. The importance of that rally was huge as it allowed Kapler to stay away from bullpen ace Seranthony Dominguez. He will be fresh as the Phillies look to make it two in a row over the Padres on Saturday night.

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Trades, a pennant race and maybe a big award await Phillies in 2nd half

Trades, a pennant race and maybe a big award await Phillies in 2nd half

Are you ready for a pennant race, Phillies fans?

Of course, you are.

It has been too long.

The Phillies get back to work Friday night and for the first time since 2011 find themselves in legitimate position to make a run at a postseason berth. They lead the National League East by a half-game over the Atlanta Braves and 5½ over the Washington Nationals.

As the players return to town for a weekend series against the San Diego Padres, let’s look ahead at a few of the important storylines that will unfold as the pennant race begins.

The Manny hangover

Fans are disappointed that the team did not land slugging infielder Manny Machado in a trade. The front office has to be disappointed. But the disappointment cannot seep into the clubhouse. This mostly young Phillies team has displayed resilience and toughness all season and that must continue as the intensity of the games increases.

Machado is still a great long-term fit for this team at shortstop for a while, then over to third base and ultimately at first base as he finishes a long contract. The Phillies had two windows to get him. One has closed. But one remains open as Machado will test the free-agent market in the offseason. The Phils were reluctant to empty their prospect vault for him, but you know they will write a big check this winter.

Machado might end up loving Los Angeles and look to stay there. But, for now, he looks like just a short-term fit with the Dodgers, who lost shortstop Corey Seager to injury and are desperate to win a World Series with a ripe core. Machado is from Miami. He has told friends that he wants to play on the East Coast with a team that has spring training in Florida. He has “a thing” for the Yankees so they will be a team to watch. But the Phillies fill a lot of his criteria, too, and winning the division, or at least making the postseason, will help make Philadelphia attractive to Machado. The money will be huge wherever the guy goes. He wants to win and though he’s focused on winning with the Dodgers, he’s watching what happens the rest of season in other potential destinations.

What's plan B?

In pursuing Machado, the Phillies were trying to upgrade their offense. Yes, the team sees pitches, grinds out at-bats and walks, but the overall offense is below average. The team batting average is just .236 and the slugging percentage .390, both in the bottom third in the majors. The lack of offense hurt the Phils on their recent 11-game road trip. They surely could have finished better than 6-5 if they hadn’t averaged under three runs over the final 10 games and been shut out twice.

Improving the offense is a must. Shortstop might be the spot to do it as the pursuit of Machado confirmed. Minnesota’s Eduardo Escobar has been mentioned as a trade target and that would make sense. Landing a shortstop could improve the bench as Scott Kingery could be used in the super-utility role that was envisioned for him at the start of the season.

Message to Maikel

Maikel Franco sat. He was dropped to eighth in the batting order and that can be humiliating for a player no matter how much importance is placed on the spot in a carefully constructed lineup.

Whether the message was intentional or not, Franco seems to have gotten it. He is in the midst of his most productive stretch of the season, hitting .352 with a 1.106 OPS in 22 games since sitting out on June 22 in favor of utility man Jesmuel Valentin. Now, the possibility exists that Franco has, at least for now, played himself out of trade-bait status. If he continues to produce, he could be better than any of the third basemen on the trade market that are viewed as upgrades.

It’s still difficult to see Franco being part of this front office’s long-term plan, but in the short term he might be the best option.

Other ways to improve

Unable to improve the offense with the addition of Machado, the Phils could look for an overall upgrade by improving their run prevention. Bullpen is clearly an area the team would like to address with the addition of a top arm. The team pursued Zach Britton, the Orioles’ lefty closer, in a Machado package and will stay on him. Brad Hand was on the Phils’ radar before he was dealt to Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez, another lefty, and Mets closer Jeurys Familia could also help shorten games.

Yet another way to help the bullpen would be to acquire Toronto’s J.A. Happ in a trade. That could conceivably turn Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta into a power-armed bullpen piece.

The importance of Jake

With an average age of 26 years and 7 months, the Phillies are the youngest team in the majors. They have arrived in a pennant race a year before most expected, but that does not mitigate the need to capitalize on that unexpected position. All of this makes it imperative that Jake Arrieta continue to produce quality starts. He has allowed just four earned runs over 19 innings in his last three starts and the Phils have won all three.

Arrieta is 32. He has pitched in pennant races and won a World Series and a Cy Young Award. Aaron Nola has emerged as the ace of the Phillies’ staff, but Arrieta’s experience and presence will be vital in the second half. Pennant races have a different intensity that much of this team has never felt. Arrieta’s been-there-done-that experience will be valuable. Carlos Santana’s, too.

From the day he arrived, Arrieta has said he wants to lead and is comfortable doing that. Fittingly, he gets the ball Friday night and the game will be a tone-setter.

Awards race

The Phillies will give Nola a few extra days of rest coming out of the All-Star break — he won’t face the Padres this weekend — and that is smart given his importance to the team’s postseason chances. When he was drafted No. 7 overall out of LSU in 2014, Nola was projected to be a quick-riser who could eventually be a quality mid-rotation starter. He has become so much more and has a legitimate chance to become the Phillies’ first Cy Young Award winner since Roy Halladay in 2010. With 2½ months to go, Nola is right there in the conversation with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, who has won the last two NL Cy Young Awards.

Nola is tied for the NL lead with 12 wins and is second in ERA (2.30), innings (129), quality starts (16) and pitchers WAR (5.9). He has allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings (0.42). He is third in opponent batting average (.199) and WHIP (0.98) and fourth in strikeouts (131).

Seranthony Dominguez, Gabe Kapler’s favorite bullpen kill shot, is on his way to garnering a serious look for NL Rookie of the Year, and Kapler himself is in position to get votes for NL Manager of the Year. The Phils won just 66 games last season. They are on pace for 90 under the first-year manager.

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Under-the-radar 1st-half trends from Phillies hitters

Under-the-radar 1st-half trends from Phillies hitters

Taking a look at some under-the-radar developments for key Phillies position players with the first half in the books.

C Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp

Alfaro has swung at a higher percentage of pitches this season than any player in the majors — 61.5 percent. The only other player who's swung at more than 59 percent of the pitches he's seen is Javier Baez.

Defensively, it's been an up-and-down season for the Phillies' catchers. They've combined to allow 12 passed balls, most in the National League. And the Phils have allowed 58 stolen bases, second most in the NL.

1B Carlos Santana

Santana's plate selection has been as advertised, with him entering the All-Star break with more walks than every player in the majors except Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

But Santana's also been helped out a bit by umpires. No player in the National League has had more pitches in the strike zone called balls than Santana (55). Some of it, obviously, has to do with his reputation. His exaggerated movements on inside pitches help, too.

2B Cesar Hernandez

Hernandez has a .380 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot this season, tops in the National League and second in baseball behind only Mookie Betts (.452).

Hernandez hasn't been driving the ball a whole lot lately — his three-run triple Sunday was his only extra-base hit in July — but you know the singles and walks will always be there for him. Hernandez has spent just one day all season with an OBP lower than .367.

3B Maikel Franco

Do you realize that we're 95 games into the season and Franco has a higher OPS than Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, George Springer, Mike Moustakas, Santana, Trea Turner, Brian Dozier, Anthony Rizzo and Adam Jones?

SS Scott Kingery

There's a baseball cliche that when a player is in a slump, he's down 0-1 or 0-2 every time he comes to the plate.

If it seems like Kingery has spent much of the first half in a hole, it's because he has. He's gotten a first-pitch strike 66.5 percent of the time, the fifth-highest rate in the NL. 

A major reason for that is Kingery's rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone — 39.7 percent, also fifth highest in the NL.

LF Rhys Hoskins

You hear a lot about how much a plate appearance changes when you start 1-0 as opposed to 0-1. For Hoskins this season, it's made a world of difference.

When Hoskins starts 1-0, he has a .457 on-base percentage. When he starts 0-1, he has a .292 OBP. That OBP gap after 1-0 vs. 0-1 counts is 48 points higher than the league average gap.

So next time you see Hoskins begin an AB 1-0, flip a coin. Nearly half the time, he's getting on base.

CF Odubel Herrera

If you've watched Herrera over the years, you've likely noticed that he takes forever in between pitches, even in an age when MLB wants to speed up the game by eliminating dead time.

Well, Herrera does indeed have the slowest pace of any MLB hitter, taking 29.3 seconds on average in between pitches.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Hernandez, who rarely steps out of the box. Hernandez takes 21.0 seconds in between pitches, third fastest in the majors.

RF Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr

The interesting trend with these two is how much better Williams, a left-handed hitter, has been against left-handed pitching.

Williams has hit .265 with a .321 OBP against lefties and .243 with a .324 OBP vs. righties. For his career, he's hit .271 against each side.

Altherr, contrarily, has hit just .169 against lefties. In a larger sample, it stands to reason that Williams' numbers against same-handed pitching would come down. But to this point, the platoon aspect of the right-field tandem hasn't worked out as expected.

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