Friday, February 26, 2016

Young Phillies Ready For The Spotlight


One In, One Out – After fracturing his right thumb in a bunting drill last week, projected starter Jerad Eickhoff said his injury wasn't anything serious. Apparently it's not. Eickhoff returned to Phillies camp on Thursday to throw a bullpen session, and he was happy to be back. "Absolutely, just to get back on that slope was a great feeling. Wish I could have threw more," Eickhoff said. "I just wanted to get that feel back." Manager Pete Mackanin was encouraged by the quick return. "Very much," Mackanin said. "We know that he's gonna be ready for the season. I'd like to believe it would be in that first rotation. He's set back a little bit. It was unfortunate, but I think he's going to be fine." Eickhoff felt great, but he admitted the injury scared him at first. "A little bit," he said. "I was pretty nervous obviously the day it happened. It's been a good feeling. All the trainers and coaches have been real supportive. They said, 'Don't rush back by any means. Just make sure you get that thing healthy before you get back.'" Asche out: Cody Asche is listed as day to day in camp after getting hit by a pitch and tweaking his oblique. Mackanin says it's simply a precautionary measure, as Asche doesn't want to risk making it worse and should be back soon. On the clock: Major League Baseball is making big efforts to speed up its games, with the latest measure a 30-second stadium clock counting down each mound visit. The clock begins the moment each coach leaves the dugout. "I'm going to have to keep my legs loose so I can jog out to the mound," Mackanin quipped. Mackanin doesn't have a problem with the new mandate, as he says most trips are quick, unless a manager needs to bring his infielders in to make them aware of a certain play. "I think it can be done in 30 seconds."

Ready For Round Two – He's only 22, yet Aaron Nola is quickly checking all the boxes. First-round Draft Pick? Check. Successful big league debut? Check. Opening Day starter? ... "It's all of our dreams to be an Opening Day Starter if you haven't been one," Nola proclaimed Thursday at Phillies camp. The young right-hander is the odds-on favorite to start for Philadelphia on Opening Day on April 4 in Cincinnati, but don't mistake his confidence for cockiness. He's not brash or boastful. Nola is humble, and the proof lies in the priority he puts in getting along with his teammates. "Forming those relationships when I was up in Philly this past year definitely has helped me this Spring Training so far, and I feel it's going to continue to help me." It also helps he earned the respect of his teammates by living up to all of the hype last season. Nola entered the big leagues and acted every bit the seventh overall pick of the 2014 Draft, going 6-2 with 68 strikeouts and 19 walks in 13 starts. Nola wasn't content with his debut, so this offseason he fine-tuned his repertoire. "I put a lot of work into my changeup, trying to get my changeup where I want it to be, have it be a strong pitch in my arsenal this year." Nola's teammate, Jeremy Hellickson, can relate to building off a great Major League debut. Hellickson was an American League Rookie of the Year Award winner with the Rays in 2011, and the new Phillies righty compares Nola's stuff to his former Tampa Bay teammate, James Shields. "I think he's handling it great," Hellickson said. "I don't think much gets to him. He works extremely hard." Nola may be young, but he's wise enough to know big league hitters will be ready to make adjustments this season. "They put whatever I did to them into like a computer in their brain, and I try to do the same," Nola said. "At the end of the day, it's about making adjustments." Learning and adjusting? Check and check. Nola seems to have all the bases covered.

It Could Be A Ruf Year – Entering his eighth year in the Phillies' organization, the past four in the big leagues, the time is now for potential-packed slugger Darin Ruf. "He's at a point, he's [29] years old, he's got to put up or shut up this year," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. Ruf feels the urgency and also understands to reach his potential, he's going to have to compete with fellow first baseman Ryan Howard for at-bats. Entering this spring, Ruf endured yet another offseason of Howard trade talk, which Ruf admits has become quite the broken record. "We've been hearing those rumors for like two to three years now, and nothing has happened," Ruf said. Ruf insists the obvious: both players want to be starters, but the relationship off the field remains a friendly one. "We have a great relationship," Ruf said. "We try to help each other all the time, on the field and off the field. We get together as much as possible, get dinners, lunches." Ruf is certainly the yin to Howard's yang. While Howard has struggled against lefties, Ruf has thrived. His OPS vs. lefties was an eye-opening 1.107 last season, which would have tied Nelson Cruz for the Major League lead if Ruf had enough at-bats. Playing strictly against lefties is a role he has mastered. "I might have the coach throw lefty and work on a little bit more fast-slow things in the cage," Ruf said. "It's a point of emphasis for me." This spring, Ruf is poised to break out of his comfort zone and face more righties, against whom his OPS was .483 last year, compared to Howard's .770. "Yeah I hope so," Ruf said. "I'm going to have to earn those and show I can regularly throw quality at-bats out there. You have more of a comfort level the more years you do it. [It's my] fourth big league Spring Training now. I know how it works." He wants to take playing time away from Howard, a player Ruf has great respect for on the field and the way the veteran has carried himself off of it. "I just try to watch him the way he goes about his work habits," Ruf said. "If there are things I can pick up, implement in the kind of person I am, the way I treat my fellow teammates, coaches, I think it will lead to a long career." It's a career at a crossroads this season, where for Ruf, the time is now.

Today In Phils History - In 1914, baseball was quite a different sport so when the Phillies spring training camp in Wilmington, NC was delayed due to weather manager Red Dooin held an indoor practice at the local YMCA. 40 years later the game had changed to the point that Robin Roberts signed a then NL record contract worth over $40,000 for the season ending his hold out. Of course, we must also remember a couple of players from the early days who have birthdays today including Ed Sixsmith (1863) who had only two plate appearances in his career and Hall of Famer Pete Alexander (1887) who is still one of the greatest pitchers to have ever played the game. 

With the Phillies having finished the 2015 season with a spectacularly awful record of 63-99 it will be interesting to see what kind of team new President Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak put on the field. At the same time I am definitely looking forward to the games against Boston with former GM Ruben Amaro on the field. Given the departures, lingering contracts, a history of injuries, bipolar performances, and unproven talent, it should, at the very least, be an interesting season for the Phillies. Who knows, maybe they can avoid 100 losses... hopefully by more than one game!

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