Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Phillies Notebook: Difficult challenge ahead

Posted by Eric Fisher On April 29

The Phillies turned around a poor start with a six-game winning streak, pushing them above .500 and lifting them to second place in the National League East.

Now comes the hard part.

We’ll know a lot more about the Phillies after the next two weeks. This is a difficult stretch of games that includes three games against the Dodgers, four against the Cubs and six against the Nationals.

The Dodgers, who won the opening game of the series with the Phillies on Friday night, actually have a worse record (12-12) than the Phillies (11-10). The Cubs (12-10) are just a half-game better than the Phillies, but they are the defending World Series champions. The Nationals  (16-7) have the best record in Major League Baseball.

We should learn a lot about the Phillies by how they perform against that level of competition. Among the most important areas to watch is whether the Phillies can hit good pitching. Some of their better hitters seem to feast on mediocre pitching, yet struggle mightily against good pitching. The Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals all have good rotations, although the Phillies will miss Clayton Kershaw during the Dodgers series.

Nobody is expecting the Phillies to make a playoff run this year. But it’s still a good test to see how the Phillies stack up against three likely playoff teams.


VELASQUEZ ENDS DROUGHT: Vince Velasquez earned his first victory since last July on Wednesday when the Phillies beat the visiting Marlins, 7-4. Velasquez allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings. What was most impressive ws the number of pitches Velasquez threw.

Throwing 97 pitches in 6 1/3 innings isn’t great, but it’s an improvement over his usual pattern. The improvement began in his previous outing, when he threw 84 pitches in six innings while taking a no-decision against the Mets. In his first two starts of the season, Velsquezthrew 94 pitches in four innings and 100 pitches in five innings.

Velasquez struck out 17 batters in nine innings during his first two starts and just five in 12 1/3 innings during his two most recent starts. That might be an indication that Velasquez is learning that his primary goal as a pitcher is to get outs, not necessarily strikeouts. If we continue to see Velasquez’s strikeout totals go down and his innings to up, it will be a sign that Velasquez is making the transition from a thrower to a pitcher.


HELLICKSON EXCELLENT: Jeremy Hellickson ends April with a 4-0 record and 1.80 ERA. He has only walked three batters in 30 innings. You can’t ask for much more than that.

During Thursday’s 3-2 victory over the Marlins, Hellickson actually got into trouble a few times, but was able to work his way out of the jams. Working on a one-year contract for $17.2 million, Hellickson may find himself with a long-term deal in that range – or a little more – if he continues to perform near this level. The question is whether that contract will come from the Phillies or another team.


EICKHOFF WINLESS: With Vince Velasquez earning his first win, the only winless starting pitcher who was in the rotation for the entire month of April is Jerad Eickhoff. To be fair, Eickhoff has been the victim of a lack of support, as was the case last year. Eickhoff is 0-2 with a 3.56 ERA. His ERA went up by a full run Friday during a 5-3 loss to the Dodgers, which was his first bad outing of the season.


NOLA GOES ON DL: Aaron Nola, who had two wins in his first three starts, was placed on the disabled list due to a back strain. Nola is only expected to miss one or two starts, according to Phillies general manager Matt Klentak. Nick Pivetta called up to take Nola’s place in rotation, although is first start delayed a few days by Tuesday’s rainout against the Marlins, which pushed Vince Velasquez’s start back one day.


GALVIS STREAKING: Freddy Galvis’ 2-run double during Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Dodgers extended his hitting streak to 10 games. Galvis has increased his average to .269, but he has only walked once in 78 at-bats, which is why his on-base percentage is a paltry .284.


ALTHERR ON TEAR: Aaron Altherr is certainly taking advantage of the opportunity created by outfielder Howie Kendrick’s trip to the disabled list due to a strained oblique muscle. Altherr is batting .317 with two home runs and is playing terrific defense. Altherr may make it difficult for manager Pete Mackanin to take him out of the lineup when everyone is healthy.


HIT AND MISS: Maikel Franco’s grand slam earlier this week was his second during April. He is among the RBI leaders with 21. Yet he is batting just .213. The season is only one month old, but Franco seems to be continuing his pattern of hot streaks and cold streaks rather than being a consistent hitter.


MEDOZA WATCH: Starters Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp remain below the Mendoza line, with Joseph batting .190 and Rupp batting .180.


LEITER DEBUT: Mark Leiter Jr. hurled a scoreless inning in relief Friday against the Dodgers in his Major League debut. His debut made Leiter and his father, Mark Leiter, the second father-and-son combination to play for the Phillies, joining Ruben Amaro and Ruben Amaro Jr.


TOUGH ROAD: After this weekend’s series with the Dodgers, the Phillies will continue their road trip with four games at Wrigley Field from Monday through Thursday. Once the Phillies finish with the world-champion Cubs, they will return to Citizens Bank Park – without a day off – for three games against the Nationals.

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