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Springtime Storylines: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?

The short answer? No, I don’t see how they can be. The Phillies were seventh in the National League last season in runs scored and OPS. And that was with Ryan Howard in the lineup on a regular basis and Chase Utley playing nearly every day after making his season debut on May 23. We don’t know when they Howard or Utley will play this year. They could both be back in May. Or it could take longer. With Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins expected to carry the load and Juan Pierre, Freddy Galvis and Ty Wigginton likely to get significant playing time in the early going, this simply isn’t anywhere close to the same offense that finished either first or second in the NL in runs scored every season from 2004-2010.

Of course, the saving grace here is that the starting rotation is still in excellent shape. And with a long offseason, it’s really easy to forget how great “The Big Three” really are. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combined for a ridiculous 2.50 ERA over 682 1/3 innings last year and all three finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young balloting. No offense to Roy Oswalt, who pitched well enough between DL-stints, but this trio is the biggest reason why the Phillies won a franchise record 102 games last season. And they aren’t going anywhere. Halladay turns 35 in May and Lee turns 34 in August, so the clock is ticking, but they haven’t shown any signs of wearing down yet. I don’t think Vance Worley is as good as his 3.01 ERA from last year suggests, but he did average 8.1 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9. Joe Blanton is a bit of a wild card and the Phillies were reportedly shopping him up until recently, but he has been healthy and effective this spring.

We were reminded last year that it’s difficult to win in the postseason on dominant starting pitching alone, but assuming “The Big Three” stay healthy and make at least 30 starts again, it should give them a distinct advantage during the regular season. The real question is, how many more chances will the Phillies get with this current core of players? Howard, Utley, Halladay, Lee, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Rollins are all 32 or older while Hamels and Victorino can become free agents this winter. After falling short of the World Series in each of the past two seasons, the pressure is on.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Phillies were reportedly on the verge of re-signing Ryan Madson to a four-year, $44 million contract in November, but GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. ended up giving Jonathan Papelbon an even-bigger four-year, $50 million contract with a $13 million vesting option for 2016. The deal set a new record for the richest contract ever for a reliever. Papelbon is one of the best closers in the game and is coming off an excellent season in which he posted a 2.94 ERA and 87/10 K/BB ratio over 64 1/3 innings, but this deal already looks excessive.
  • While Papelbon should be solid, the rest of the bullpen looks a little shaky at the moment. Jose Contreras will begin the season on the disabled list following elbow surgery and Antonio Bastardo has struggled to find his velocity this spring. Michael Stutes showed some real promise last season, but he has been slowed with shoulder soreness recently. And while Chad Qualls posted a 3.51 ERA with the Padres last season and still induces plenty of ground balls, he had a 5.05 ERA and gave up six home runs over 35 2/3 innings away from PETCO Park. Lots of questions.
  • It should be interesting to see how often Jim Thome is thrown into the mix at first base while Ryan Howard is on the mend. The 41-year-old hasn’t started more than three games at first base in a season since his last stint with the Phillies in 2005, so it’s doubtful he’ll be able to hold up physically. Still, there’s a good chance he passes Sammy Sosa for seventh place on the all-time home run list this season.
  • John Mayberry, Jr. was a nice surprise for the Fightins last season, batting .273/.341/.513 with 15 homers, 49 RBI and an .854 OPS over 104 games, including a .931 OPS after the All-Star break. Can he help lessen the blow of missing Howard and Utley? And if not, will Domonic Brown finally emerge as the player most prospect prognosticators thought he would be? This offense needs a younger player to emerge.
  • Can the Phillies afford to keep Cole Hamels? The two sides continue to have discussions about a possible contract extension, but he could find a deal north of $120 million if he reaches the open market this winter. The Yankees and Dodgers loom as potential threats to lure the 28-year-old southpaw away from Philadelphia.

How are they gonna do?

Do the Phillies look vulnerable right now? You bet they do. The offense is a concern and everyone in the division (outside of the Mets, anyway) is projected to play .500 or better. But underestimate this starting pitching at your own peril. I’m not expecting 102 wins again or anything — something in the low-to-mid 90s is more realistic — but I think Charlie Manuel’s squad will walk away with a sixth straight division crown.

Chacin wins duel with Verlander, Angels top Tigers 5-1

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Over the first 4 1/2 innings at Angel Stadium, Jhoulys Chacin and Justin Verlander retired all 27 batters they faced. They kept trading zeros deep into the eighth inning of a scintillating pitchers’ duel.

After the Los Angeles Angels finally cracked Verlander, Chacin kept pushing all the way to a breakthrough victory for his new team.

Chacin threw a four-hitter, and Cliff Pennington‘s tiebreaking RBI single during a five-run eighth propelled the Angels to a 5-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.

With shadows on the field for an early holiday start at Angel Stadium, nobody could get a hit off Chacin (1-1) or Verlander (4-5) until C.J. Cron‘s single leading off the fifth for Los Angeles.

Chacin lost his own perfect game bid on Andrew Romine‘s two-out single in the sixth, but the veteran Venezuelan right-hander persevered all the way to his third career complete game in his fourth start for the Angels.

“It felt great, and I’m really happy,” Chacin said. “I feel like my arm is just getting stronger, and hopefully it can stay like that the whole season.”

Los Angeles acquired Chacin from Atlanta earlier this month to bolster their injury-battered rotation. In his fourth start on the West Coast, he struck out 10 while throwing the Angels’ first complete game of the season.

“There’s no doubt he was hitting his spots,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He got a lot of called strikes and some ugly swings from some really good hitters. His command was terrific. I don’t even think he threw 20 pitches (while) behind in the count. It was unbelievable.”

Chacin’s dominance was invaluable after the Angels’ bullpen was taxed in a 13-inning loss to Houston on Sunday, their fourth defeat in five games. Facing Detroit for the first time, the veteran right-hander threw his first complete game since 2011.

He fell just shy of the second shutout of his career when J.D. Martinez doubled and scored on Victor Martinez‘s long fly in the ninth, but Los Angeles had already given him plenty of room for error after eight nail-biting innings.

Chacin’s satisfaction was likely as large as the frustration felt by the Tigers, who wasted a gem from Verlander.

“When we don’t do anything offensively, it seems like it’s a lineup epidemic,” Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. “When you’re in a 0-0 game, there’s no room for error, as you saw.”

Verlander, who threw eight scoreless innings last week against Philadelphia, gave up only one hit in the first seven innings while retiring the first 12 Angels he faced. He got no support from his teammates in Detroit’s fourth loss in five games.

“It’s tough for everybody here,” Verlander said. “You never know with our lineup. We can put up runs in a hurry, so you just kind of keep waiting for the big hit. Just keep going out there and plugging along, and hoping that it happens.”

BIG RALLY

Verlander sat down eight straight Angels shortly after Cron’s hit, but the bottom of their order finally beat him. After Johnny Giavotella and Rafael Ortega opened the eighth with back-to-back singles, Pennington failed on two bunt attempts before confidently lining a single to left.

Gregorio Petit then grounded to short, but Romine’s throw home was too late to get Ortega, and James McCann‘s subsequent throw to first skipped into right field, scoring Pennington.

HOLIDAY PAY

Albert Pujols and Cron added RBI singles off Buck Farmer in the eighth. Pujols has 20 career RBIs on Memorial Day, the most among active big leaguers. He is batting .363 with 32 RBIs against Detroit in his career.

FIELD OF SCREAMS

Detroit has lost 18 of its last 22 games in Anaheim since 2009, including eight straight and 14 of the last 15.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Tigers: Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann went through a pregame workout at Angel Stadium, and he’ll throw a bullpen session Tuesday in hopes of returning later this week from a groin strain.

Angels: Closer Huston Street was activated from the disabled list before the game. He hadn’t pitched since April 23 due to a strained oblique muscle.

UP NEXT

Tigers: Anibal Sanchez (3-6, 6.04 ERA) is winless in four career starts at Angel Stadium.

Angels: Hector Santiago (3-3, 4.58 ERA) got ejected in the third inning of his last start in Texas.

Cubs ‘pen perfect for 7 innings in 1-hit win over Dodgers

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CHICAGO (AP) Travis Wood and three other relievers combined for seven perfect innings after starter Jason Hammel left with cramps, and the Chicago Cubs held the Los Angeles Dodgers to one hit in a 2-0 victory Monday.

Hammel exited after his right hamstring cramped while warming up for the third inning. Wood (3-0) pitched four perfect innings in his longest stint of the season.

Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon pitched one inning each for the Cubs, with Rondon getting his ninth save. He has converted 20 straight save opportunities dating back to Aug. 14.

Ben Zobrist extended his hitting streak to a career-high-tying 16 games. He singled leading off the fifth and reached third when right fielder Yasiel Puig misplayed the ball. He scored on Jason Heyward‘s infield single.

Anthony Rizzo drove home Heyward with a double to right.

Zobrist has reached base in his last 35 starts, the longest streak by a Cub since Starlin Castro‘s 40 in 2011.

The Cubs (35-14) have the best record in baseball and are a season-high 21 games over .500. They have won six straight since dropping eight of 12.

They entered Monday 6 1/2 games in front of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central.

The Dodgers had won six of seven entering this Memorial Day matinee. The Dodgers arrived at their Chicago hotel at 3:30 a.m. following a 4-2 win over Mets on Sunday in New York, but manager Dave Roberts said before the game that his team had no problem with the quick turnaround.

“It makes it a lot easier after you win a game like we did last night,” he said. “To be here (at Wrigley Field) in this environment, it’s pretty exciting. But it’s kind of business as usual.”

Dodgers starting pitcher Alex Wood (1-4) gave up two runs on seven hits in five innings, striking out seven and walking three. His normal turn would have been last Friday, but he injured his left triceps swinging a bat in his previous start, May 21 in San Diego. Nineteen-year-old Julio Urias started in his place Friday.

MEMORIAL DAY LAMENT

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his father, uncles and grandparents served in the military – and that his Uncle Buzz was a POW.

“The one regret I have in my own personal life is the fact that I never did serve,” Maddon said. “At the time, it was very unpopular. The Vietnam War was going on, and I was in college. At the time, you really thought you were very fortunate not to have to do that. But retrospectively, that would be the one life experience that I missed out on. I wish I hadn’t.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: OF Trayce Thompson, who left Saturday’s game in New York with lower back soreness, was 100 percent and available off the bench, according to Roberts. He’s expected to start in left field on Tuesday. … OF Carl Crawford, pulled from Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury, started in left Monday. “I just wanted to give him (Thompson) another day and give C.C. an opportunity,” Roberts said. “C.C. is a quick healer. I like the matchup of him and Hammel.” … RHP Brandon McCarthy (Tommy John surgery) was scheduled to throw to hitters at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

CUBS: Maddon did not start center fielder Dexter Fowler, who has a sore heel. Maddon said he hoped Fowler would return to the lineup Tuesday. Maddon moved Jason Heyward from right to center, shifted Ben Zobrist from second to right, and inserted Javier Baez at second. Zobrist also took Fowler’s leadoff spot. Fowler entered Monday’s game with a six-game hitting streak.

UP NEXT

CUBS: RHP Jake Arrieta (9-0, 1.72 ERA) will try to become the major league’s first 10-game winner. He is the first Cubs starter to win his first nine decisions in a season since Kenny Holtzman in 1967. The only Cubs starter with a longer season-opening streak was Jim McCormick, who started 16-0 in 1886. Arrieta is 20-0 with a 0.98 ERA in 22 starts since Aug. 1, 2015.

DODGERS: LHP Scott Kazmir (4-3, 4.84) pitched for then-Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon’s 2008 World Series team. He has a 1-0 career record and 2.53 ERA in two games against the Cubs. Kazmir is 3-1 in May with a 4.13 ERA.

Bogaerts hit streak at 23 as Red Sox beat Orioles 7-2

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BALTIMORE (AP) Xander Bogaerts did the damage early, extending his hitting streak to 23 games and driving in two runs.

From there, Boston used the long ball to pull away from the Baltimore Orioles in a matchup between the top two teams in the AL East.

Jackie Bradley put the first-place Red Sox ahead for good with a sixth-inning homer, and David Ortiz and Marco Hernandez connected in the eighth to seal a 7-2 victory Monday.

Knuckleballer Steven Wright (5-4) pitched a four-hitter, striking out seven and walking five in his third straight complete game.

Mookie Betts scored twice, courtesy of Bogaerts, before Bradley connected off Tyler Wilson (2-4) leading off the sixth. Bradley’s 29-game hitting streak, which ended last week, is the only one this season longer than Bogaerts’ career-best run.

“I’m just trying to go up there and get hits, you know? If it happens, it happens,” Bogaerts said. “Just trying to be me, and not trying to be someone who I’m not.”

Ortiz led off the eighth with his 14th home run and Hernandez added a three-run shot to send many in the crowd of 43,926 up the exit ramps. Hernandez’s first major league homer came in his 10th game.

Wright, meanwhile, threw a 122-pitch masterpiece by mixing a fluttering knuckler with a vastly contrasting fastball.

“It was a challenge,” Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo said. “He had great stuff today. It never ended up where it started. You can’t really predict where to swing. You just hope that you get one that maybe doesn’t move quite as much.”

Ryan Flaherty doubled in a run and scored one for the Orioles, who have lost six of eight.

Wilson gave up three runs and eight hits over 6 2-3 innings in losing his third straight start.

Limited to an infield hit over the first four innings, Baltimore temporarily solved Wright’s knuckler in the fifth. Nolan Reimold tripled, Flaherty doubled, Caleb Joseph snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a single and Adam Jones delivered a sacrifice fly to tie the game at 2.

“They’re a very aggressive team. They’re all really good hitters,” Wright said. “In that inning they scored the two runs, I think I kind of got caught up in the same speed.”

The deadlock lasted only until Bradley crushed Wilson’s third pitch of the following inning.

Boston got a first-inning run when Betts scored from second base on Bogaerts’ dribbler down the third-base line. Bogaerts was thrown out, but neither Wilson nor Joseph, the catcher, got back to cover the plate. Replays indicated the ball bounced off Bogaerts’ foot in foul ground, but such plays are not reviewable.

Bogaerts knew the ball should have been called foul, but learned from experience to run it out.

“We had a play back at home, same play. I stood at home, the ball hit me, and they threw to first, out,” he said. “I told the umpire the ball hit me, and he said, `No, you’re out.’ This time I’m running, you know. And it worked out for RBI.”

Bogaerts hit an RBI double in the third following singles by Betts and Dustin Pedroia.

DOUBLE DOWN

Red Sox: Bogaerts’ two doubles increased Boston’s major-league leading total to 133, but Ortiz’s career-high run of six straight games with a double came to an end.

Orioles: Flaherty’s fifth-inning double was his second in 61 at-bats this season and produced his second RBI.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Red Sox: Placed on the concussion list May 20, utility man Brock Holt has ramped up his baseball-related activities. But there is no timetable for his return, manager John Farrell said. … Ortiz returned after sitting out Sunday’s game in Toronto with a sore left foot.

Orioles: RHP Yovani Gallardo (shoulder tendinitis) will begin his rehabilitation assignment on Thursday and with 40-60 pitches in a minor league game. … SS J.J. Hardy (broken foot) will have a CT scan Friday. He hopes to be cleared to begin baseball-related activities. Joseph was taken to the hospital for observation after getting struck in the groin by a foul ball.

UP NEXT

Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez (right knee) comes off the disabled list to make his season debut, starting on the mound Tuesday night against the organization that drafted him. Rodriquez went 0-3 in five rehab starts with Triple-A Pawtucket. After the game, Boston sent reliever Heath Hembree to the minors to make room for Rodriguez.

Orioles: Starting for the eighth time this season, Kevin Gausman (0-2, 3.24 ERA) makes another run at his first win.

Harvey rediscovers form, leads Mets over White Sox 1-0

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NEW YORK (AP) Matt Harvey rediscovered his form with seven dominant innings of two-hit ball, Neil Walker homered off Jose Quintana, and the New York Mets beat Chicago 1-0 Monday to send the reeling White Sox to their seventh straight loss.

Harvey (4-7) has been one of baseball’s biggest puzzles, transforming from a premier pitcher to baffled ballplayer. Two weeks ago, he was booed at Citi Field when he lasted just 2 2/3 innings against Washington. This time, fans started to stand and cheer when he got two strikes on Jose Abreu in the fourth, and the crowd gave him a huge ovation when he escaped the seventh-inning jam.

With both teams wearing special Memorial Day uniforms with camouflage lettering and trim, Harvey struck out six and walked two to win for the first time since May 8. His fastball velocity was up markedly, and he threw 61 of 87 pitches for strikes.

Harvey, pitching to backup catcher Rene Rivera for the first time this season, retired his first 13 batters before J.B. Shuck lined a single to left, and Shuck got doubled up when first baseman Wilmer Flores made a diving catch on Brett Lawrie‘s liner.

Harvey didn’t go to a three-ball count until facing Alex Avila in the sixth and was at 70 pitches through six innings, facing the minimum 18 hitters. Harvey pitched into the seventh for the first time this year.

Adam Eaton walked on a 3-2 pitch leading off the seventh and Abreu grounded a single to left on the next pitch. After a mound visit from pitching coach Dan Warthen, Melky Cabrera sacrificed, Todd Frazier fouled out to first and Shuck grounded out, causing Harvey to make a small first pump as he walked off the mound.

Harvey was coming off three straight losses in which he allowed 19 runs and 27 hits, and he struck out a career-low one last week at Washington. He worked on adjusting his mechanics when he threw to hitters before Friday’s game, and he seemed to reach back more toward second in his windup before starting his arm toward the plate.

In his only previous start against the White Sox, Harvey retired his first 20 batters before Alex Rios beat out an infield single on May 7, 2013, and that was the only runner he allowed over nine innings during a game the Mets won in the 10th.

Addison Reed struck out two in a perfect eighth. After wasting a four-run lead in the Mets’ win over Los Angeles on Friday and giving up a pair of ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s loss to the Dodgers, Jeurys Familia got three straight outs to remain perfect in 17 save chances. He has converted 33 consecutive save opportunities dating to last season.

Quintana (5-5) was almost as good but has lost four straight starts for the first time in his big league career. He allowed four singles before Walker led off the Mets’ seventh with his 12th homer, a drive over the 370-foot sign in left.

Chicago is on its longest slid since dropping eight straight from last June 12-19. The White Sox have lost 15 of 19 following a 23-10 start and were coming off a three-game series at Kansas City in which they wasted late leads each day.

NOT A HIT

Brett Lawrie was hit on a hand on the ninth pitch of his at-bat against Harvey in the second, but first base umpire Sam Holbrook ruled he swung

FIRSTS

Mets rookie Ty Kelly singled up the middle in the fifth for his first major league hit.

COMING UP NEXT

Acquired from San Diego last weekend for $1, first baseman James Loney reported to the Mets and will be active for Tuesday night’s game.

TRAINER’S ROOM

White Sox: OF Austin Jackson was not available because of turf toe in his left foot. White Sox manager Robin Ventura hopes he can avoid the DL.

Mets: Mets manager Terry Collins is worried 3B David Wright‘s neck injury might lead to a stint on the DL.

UP NEXT

LHP Steven Matz (7-1), who has won seven straight starts, is to take the mound Tuesday night or New York against Mat Latos (6-1). Because of a short outing caused by his ejection Saturday, Noah Syndergaard will be available in the bullpen for the Mets.