The Philadelphia Phillies powered their way past the Miami Marlins by a 7-4 score on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park, tying the Fish for second place in the NL East standings.
The Fightin’ Phils used three home runs, including a grand slam from Maikel Franco‘s suddenly percolating bat, to rally from an early 2-0 deficit.
Vince Velasquez provided manager Pete Mackanin‘s club with a tidy 6.1 inning effort. He allowed six hits and three earned runs in a 97-pitch outing. Velasquez also struck out three and walked two batters in registering his first victory of the season.
The win was a fifth consecutive victory for the Phillies, moving the team above the .500 mark at 10-9 as we approach the end of the first month of the 2017 MLB season.
Exactly one year ago on this date, the Phillies were also a game over that .500 mark. At 11-10, the Phils would continue to rise in the standings over the next three weeks. They would reach a high-water mark for the 2016 season of 24-17 on May 18th before it all came crashing down.
While that fast-starting Phillies season of a year ago deteriorated into a fourth straight losing campaign, there are signs that things may turn out differently this year.
While that won’t get you any parades down Broad Street, it is certainly a major improvement over a year ago. The Phils .685 OPS mark in 2016 was at the bottom of the big league pack.
The Phillies offense hasn’t suddenly turned into a juggernaut. What they are showing is the incremental improvement of a team rising from the ashes. There is now real hope that the darkest days lie in the past.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez is making a believer out of many former skeptics. A month away from his 27th birthday, Hernandez is hitting .321/.360/.536 slash line. He leads the club with 27 hits, 18 runs scored, and three stolen bases. His four home runs are tied for the team lead, and his 10 RBI are tied for second on the club.
New left fielder Howie Kendrick had started out strong with a .333 average and .395 on-base percentage over his first 10 games before heading to the Disabled List.
The lineup has not missed Kendrick one bit. Aaron Altherr has taken full advantage of increased playing time. The 26-year old is hitting for a .361/.425/.639 slash. His 10 runs scored are second on the club.
Odubel Herrera, the Phillies’ lone 2016 NL All-Star, signed a long-term contract this past off-season. ‘El Torito’ is hitting .271 with a .354 OBP, and his nine walks lead the team.
Most encouraging for the Phillies is third baseman Maikel Franco, who appears to be finally heating up. The talented 24-year old is hitting .350 over his last five games. Franco has driven in 10 runs during that span. It is no coincidence that the team has won all five of those games.
ROTATION DEPTH PROVING VALUABLE
On the mound, the organization’s starting pitching depth has already paid dividends. Clay Buchholz is likely lost for the season. Aaron Nola is requiring a stint on the DL. As a result, early opportunities have arisen.
Into the breach has stepped Zach Eflin, a 23-year old who made his big league debut with the club a year ago. Eflin has provided the team with solid outings in his first two starts since being promoted from AAA Lehigh Valley.
Jeremy Hellickson and Jerad Eickhoff are giving the Phillies a competitive 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation for a second consecutive season. If Velasquez can harness his considerable talents and produce more consistency in deeper outings, it would be a major boon.
“He’s trying to pitch to more contact and not make perfect pitches and strike everybody out. Once he puts it all together, he’ll have that total ensemble working for him. He’ll know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He’s making good improvements.”
BULLPEN HAS MORE WEAPONS
Although Mackanin has been reluctant (for some unknown reason) to name him the official full-time closer, Hector Neris has effectively seized that role. Neris has allowed just nine hits over 11.1 innings with a 13/3 K:BB ratio.
A pair of youngsters, right-hander Edubray Ramos and lefty Joely Rodriguez, have been inconsistent. But both have also flashed enough positives that they could prove to be long term gems in the Phillies bullpen.
A pair of veteran newcomers, right-handers Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek, have helped the Phillies bullpen provide far more stability and reliability in the late innings than in any recent season.
MINOR LEAGUES POISED TO PROVIDE BOOST
Along with the positive developments at the big league level, the Phillies improved minor league system appears nearly ready to deliver even more talent in the coming months.
On the mound, Nick Pivetta is about to make his own big league debut this weekend with the Phillies. Pivetta has gone 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA and 0.74 WHIP mark for the Pigs. He has allowed just a dozen hits over 19 innings with a tremendous 24/2 K:BB ratio.
Two of the Phillies more high-profile prospects, shortstop J.P. Crawford and pitcher Mark Appel, are struggling at the AAA level. Both are going to have to demonstrate mastery of the minors before they can be seriously considered to help in Philly. But both remain very talented players who could also emerge later this summer.
The Phillies have even more talent percolating at the lower levels of their minor league system. With a boatload of cash available in ownership’s coffers, the Phillies are positioned well for the future.
The winning start to the 2016 season proved to be a mirage. Even this 2017 solid beginning may not last. But one thing is becoming clearer. Something different is going on down at Citizens Bank Park these days. The Phillies finally appear to be turning the corner, and a return of more consistent excitement appears to be right around the corner.