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.

Royals pay tribute to late Yordano Ventura during spring training opener

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 12: Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on August 12, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The Royals honored former pitcher Yordano Ventura prior to their first Cactus League game against the Rangers on Saturday. Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic in late January.

Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Carlos Gomez paid their respects to the pitcher with a floral arrangement that was laid on the mound. Both teams stood along the foul lines during a pregame video tribute that highlighted Ventura’s tenure with Kansas City. Following the game, Gomez spoke to the media about his relationship with Ventura, describing their frequent conversations during the season and commending the pitcher for having “the same passion that I had early in my career” (via WFAA.com’s Levi Weaver).

A plaque dedicated to the 25-year-old was also presented to club manager Ned Yost as a more permanent commemoration of Ventura’s contributions to the sport. Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star reports that the plaque will be mounted in the club’s spring training facilities alongside tributes to members of the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 playoff teams.

The full text of the plaque is below, via MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan:

A brother and a teammate, Yordano Ventura, passed away on the morning of January 22 in his native Dominican Republic, at the age of 25. He signed with the Royals as a 17-year-old, eventually making the big league team in 2013 as a 22-year-old. On most days, he could be found laughing and joking with his baseball family in the clubhouse. However, on days when he pitched, that smile was replaced by a quiet confidence and an intense fire, which he brought to the mound for every start. He had many highlights in his abbreviated career, not the least of which was throwing eight shutout innings in Game #6 of the 2014 World Series to force a Game #7 vs. San Francisco.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.