Ben Francisco powers Phillies to 2-1 lead over Cardinals in NLDS

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Ben Francisco delivered a three-run pinch-hit home run off Jaime Garcia in the top of the seventh inning while the bullpen survived two late rallies as the Phillies topped the Cardinals 3-2 in Game 3 of the NLDS.

We had ourselves a pretty compelling pitchers’ duel over the first six innings as Garcia and Cole Hamels traded zeroes. Garcia was much more efficient than Hamels, but the Cardinals couldn’t break through despite a number of opportunities.

It’s easy to say this now, since we know how the game ended, but the Cardinals had a prime opportunity to break through in the bottom of the sixth inning. Ryan Theriot, who was 4-for-5 on the day, moved into scoring position with two outs after a walk by Jon Jay, but La Russa elected to stick with Garcia instead of sending up a pinch-hitter. Garcia struck out swinging and proceeded to allow the three-run pinch-hit blast to Francisco in the next half inning. That’s baseball.

After some shaky relief work by Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo and Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson came on to record a five-out save. He induced a huge double play ground ball with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth and gave up one run on two hits in the ninth. It was his first save of more than three outs this season.

On the brink of elimination, the Cardinals will send Edwin Jackson to the hill tomorrow night while Roy Oswalt starts for the Phillies.

Notes

– That home run by Ben Francisco? His first since May 25.

– As I said in the live blog, I hated the walk the intentional walk to Carlos Ruiz. It essentially gave Charlie Manuel the opportunity for the perfect matchup. Even if Tony La Russa brought in a right-hander to face Ben Francisco, we likely would have seen Raul Ibanez. Not saying Ibanez would have homered, but Manuel had the upper hand and the Phillies took advantage.

– Jaime Garcia allowed three runs on six hits over seven innings while striking out three and walking two. He retired the side in order in four out of the first five innings.

– Just to show you how little teams fear Ryan Howard against left-handed pitching, the Cardinals walked Hunter Pence with first base open and two outs in the top of the sixth inning in order to pitch to him.

– Cole Hamels struck out eight over six shutout innings, but he also gave up five hits, walked three and hit a batter. He was pulled after throwing 72 out of 117 pitches for strikes.

– Just when it looked like another major mistake by the umpires on the postseason stage, they finally got one right. After a catch by Skip Schumaker in the top of the ninth inning was originally ruled as a trap by Jerry Meals, the umpires huddled together and reversed the call. It likely would have been a double play if it was ruled as a catch from the get-go, but kudos, anyway.

– Ryan Theriot and Albert Pujols combined for eight of the Cardinals’ 12 hits on the day. Pujols went 4-for-5 with three doubles. This was his first career four-hit game in the postseason and his first with three doubles.

– The Cardinals had a total of 18 baserunners on the night, but only scored twice. They left 14 men on base.

James Paxton will “nerd out big-time” to stay healthy next year

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To the surprise of, well, very few, the Mariners didn’t make the cut for the postseason this year. While they threw their hats in the ring for a wild card berth, their pitching staff just couldn’t stay healthy, from the handful of pitchers who contracted season-ending injuries in spring training to Felix Hernandez‘s shoulder bursitis to structural damage in Hisashi Iwakuma‘s right shoulder. Left-hander James Paxton missed 79 days with a lingering head cold, strained left forearm and pectoral strain. Heading into the 2018 season, the lefty told MLB.com’s Greg Johns that he plans to “nerd out big-time” in order to prepare for a healthy, consistent run with the club.

So far, Johns reports, that entails a new diet and workout program, hot yoga sessions and blood testing. “I just think there’s more I can do,” Paxton said. “I haven’t done the blood testing before. Finding out if there’s something I don’t know about myself. It’s just about learning and trying to find what works for me.”

When healthy, the 28-year-old southpaw was lights-out for the Mariners. He helped stabilize the front end of the rotation with a 12-5 record in 24 starts and supplemented his efforts with a 2.98 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 136 innings. Despite taking multiple trips to the disabled list, he built up 4.6 fWAR — the most wins above replacement he’s compiled in any season of his career to date. Had he not been felled by a pectoral injury in mid-August — one that came with a five-week trip to the disabled list — the club might have been been able to make a bigger push for the playoffs.

Of course, even if Paxton manages to stay healthy next season, the Mariners still have the rest of the rotation to worry about. They cycled through 17 starters in 2017 and tied the 2014 Rangers with 40 total pitchers over the course of the season. Per GM Jerry Dipoto, their top four starters (Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Tommy John candidate Drew Smyly) only contributed 17% of total innings pitched, just a tad below the 40% average. Finding adequate big league arms and compensating for injured aces (both current and former) will be tough. Still, getting a healthy, dominant Paxton back on the mound for 30+ starts would be a huge get for the team — whether or not the postseason is in their future next year.