Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies

Phillies’ future could hang on upcoming stretch

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A quarter of the way into the season, the Phillies have managed to tread water in the not-so-rugged National League East (see story). Now comes a pivotal stage in the team’s schedule.

The Phils play 20 games in the next 20 days, a sizable chunk of baseball that on top of the 41 games the team has already played, could give upper management the read it needs in determining whether to keep the club together and hope it can play through its flaws and earn a playoff berth or break it up through a series of trades that would signal a retooling effort.

The 20-game stretch will take the Phillies into an off day on June 9. By that time, the draft will be over — the Phils have the seventh overall pick, their highest since 2001 when they took Gavin Floyd fourth overall — and GM Ruben Amaro Jr., notably hands-on in preparing for this draft, can take a good long look at his club as he makes the call on how to proceed.

It’s very possible that Amaro gets to June 9 and decides he needs to push back his decision several weeks. Whether he’s added or subtracted in the past, Amaro has done much of his in-season work close to the July 31 trade deadline, so he has some time on his side.

If Amaro gets to that off day on June 9 and decides to wait things out a little, it will mean his club fared pretty well over the 20-game stretch it is about to begin.

Fresh from two of their best games of the season (a pair of wins over Cincinnati by a combined score of 20-4), the Phils make their first of three visits to Miami beginning Tuesday night.

After that, the Phils return to Citizens Bank Park for an 11-game homestand that will include three against the Dodgers, three against the Rockies and five against the NL East rival Mets. When the Mets leave, the Phils head to Washington for three and on to Cincinnati for three, taking them to the June 9 off day and a convenient time to Amaro to take inventory of his club.

The Phils have caught some breaks in their schedule this season. They missed Yu Darvish on opening day because the Texas ace was on the disabled list. They did not see two-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles because he was on the DL. It didn’t hurt that the Reds were without sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce during their trip to Philadelphia over the weekend.

The trip to Miami finds the Phils missing out on another star. Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ 21-year-old pitching phenom, recently went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, a blow not only to the Miami ballclub but to all of baseball because it’s never good when a young, magnetic star, in any sport, goes down with an injury. Fernandez was rough on the Phillies last year, holding them to just one run and eight hits in 18 innings over three starts. The Phillies turned the tables and beat Fernandez earlier this season en route to a three-game sweep of the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park.

If the Marlins’ pitching schedule had held up, Fernandez likely would have pitched against the Phillies and A.J. Burnett in Tuesday night’s series opener.

Instead, the Phils will face Anthony DeSclafani, a 24-year-old rookie right-hander who grew up about an hour from Philadelphia in Howell, N.J. DeSclafani, who took Fernandez’s spot in the rotation, beat the Dodgers with six innings of two-run ball in his big-league debut.

The Marlins are coming off a long, 11-game trip to the West Coast where they went 4-7.

They surely will be happy to get home, not just because they are tired of the road, but because they have been fabulous at home. The Marlins have the majors’ best home record at 17-5. They’re hitting .295 (the second-best home mark in the majors) with 21 homers in Marlins Park and their ERA there is 2.61.

The Phillies are 11-10 on the road, just 8-12 at home.

The Marlins’ offense is led by rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who leads the majors with 43 RBIs in 45 games. He is second in the NL in homers (12) and extra-base hits (25).

So this first leg of 20 important games in 20 days starts off with a challenge for the Phillies. Management is watching.

Wade Davis? Greg Holland? Who needs ’em?

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 21: Joakim Soria #48 of the Kansas City Royals throws in the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on August 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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The story of the two-time defending AL champion and current defending World Series champ Kansas City Royals cannot be told without talking at length about their bullpen.

In 2014, Wade Davis, Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera formed a shutdown brigade that not only made it next to impossible for the opposition to mount late rallies, but managed something which seemed utterly impossible before 2014: they turned Ned Yost into a tactical genius. Indeed, the only time Yost got criticism at all that fall was when he messed with the autopilot formula that had that three-headed monster handling the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.

Much the same happened in 2015, of course, despite Holland’s sharp decline and eventual injury. Davis and Herrera continued their dominance. They were joined by Ryan Madson and a cast of other effective relievers who, along with timely hitting, great defense and good health, helped propel the Royals to the title.

This year had not been quite the same story. Holland has been out all year and Davis, while effective when he’s pitched, has missed time due to injury. As has longtime contributor and presumptive next-man-up Luke Hochevar. Herrera is basically still Herrera, but Ned Yost has been presented with a decidedly different set of choices. Lots of choices and Ned Yost don’t always go together well, but lately that hasn’t mattered.

Last night the Royals’ bullpen came in to a close game and tossed three scoreless innings. That set a franchise record with 32 straight scoreless frames, besting the previous record set back in the club’s inaugural season in 1969. The streak is a huge part of why the Royals have won nine games in a row.

Unlike the success of 2014-15, the streak is not a three-man show. As Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star notes, eight different relievers have appeared for Kansas City during the streak, with Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm leading the crew with five and a third innings pitched. Herrera has tossed five scoreless. Otherwise it’s been a group effort with even Peter Moylan offering a couple of scoreless frames. And here you thought Moylan was, I dunno, gearing up for the upcoming Brisbane Bandits season. Nope.

The Royals are still not, in my view anyway, a lock to make the postseason. It’s a a crowded field right now. They’re seven and a half back in the AL Central and four back in the Wild Card with a bunch of teams in front of them. But they’re certainly playing themselves back into the conversation. They’re interesting. And they’re doing it in much the same way they’ve done it the past two years. Only with different dudes doing the do.

Video: Mookie Betts made a ridiculous throw last night

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Mookie Betts was an infielder once upon a time and the knock on him both then and since his move to the outfield was that maybe his arm was not fantastic. As an infielder there was talk that he was better suited to the right side than the left. As an outfielder people were saying that, with work, his arm could be average and/or serviceable. Not bad, of course, but not anything to write home about.

Maybe we need to reassess that, because last night he uncorked one from right field that would make Dwight Evans says “dang, man.”

 

And the throw mattered, as Kiermaier represented the tying run in a game that, at the time, the Sox were leading 2-1.

Betts is a dangerous middle-of-the-order bat at age 23. And now he shows that he’ll nail a fast runner with a frozen rope if he has to. The guy is going to win an MVP award some day. And maybe not just one.