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July 01, 2016

Back home, Phillies bats stay alive in win over Royals

When we last saw the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, things, well, they were not good.

They were riding a season-high, seven-game losing streak after losing all six games of a homestand. They had scored a grand total of nine runs in those six games (or, the same amount of runs they scored Wednesday afternoon to complete a series sweep in Arizona).

The Phillies returned to South Philly on Friday having won five of nine games on their just-completed nine-game road trip …. but with a major league-worst .608 OPS in 38 games at their hitter-friendly ballpark this year. They were averaging 2.68 runs per game at home.

Meanwhile, on the road, the Phils have a .724 OPS and have averaged 4.19 runs per game.

“It’s hard to put your finger on,” Pete Mackanin said of the home-road disparity. “The ball flies here pretty well. Maybe they’re over-swinging because they’re trying to hit home runs.”

Or maybe they needed to go away for a little bit after a team-wide June swoon to get their bats going on the road.

Odubel Herrera hit the second pitch Kansas City starter Ian Kennedy threw on Friday night out for his ninth home run of the season, Cody Asche continued to look deserving of the three-hole, and even Maikel Franco got into the act with a walk and two hits, including a go-ahead single, as the Phillies rolled to a 4-3 victory over the defending World Series champions.

The win was the Phillies first at Citizens Bank Park since June 7. The Phils (36-45) have won four straight and five of their last six games.

"It was good to win, good to bring the sticks into our home ballpark," Mackanin said afterward.

"We played really good on the road, and we played well tonight," Franco said. "So you get more comfortable and more confident. We need to continue to do that."

After starter Jeremy Hellickson struck out the first two batters only to give up back-to-back two outs hits in the second inning, as Kansas City tied the game, Herrera, Asche and Franco helped untie it in the third.

Herrera walked, stole second, and advanced to third on an errant throw from catcher Salvador Perez. Two batters later, Asche drew a two-out walk to bring Franco to the plate.

Franco, whose .511 OPS at CBP this year ranked 157th out of 158 major leaguers with at least 125 plate appearances in their respective home ballparks, watched Kennedy throw three straight pitches out of the strike zone. But he didn’t chase.

On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, a 94-MPH fastball on the outside corner, Franco laced a run-scoring single into right field to give the Phillies their lead back. They never trailed again, thanks to what turned out to be crucial insurance runs in the fifth (an Asche RBI double) and in the sixth (a Herrera RBI single).

"I think he’s getting there," Mackanin said of Franco. "Little by little he’s getting to where we want to be."

Entering Friday, Franco had a .187/.220/.291 slash line in 36 games at home, with three home runs, 30 strikeouts, and six walks in 141 plate appearances. On the road: .296/.372/.570 with 10 home runs, 27 strikeouts, and 17 walks in 164 plate appearances over 38 games.

“He’s got to tone it down a little bit,” Mackanin said before the game. “He’s just got to be a little bit more under control. I think that’s all he needs to do. In the heat of the game, it’s hard to do. You got to talk to yourself, you got to relax.”

For at least one night, Franco and the Phillies offense finally looked comfortable in their own ballpark. 

Franco obviously wasn't the only batter with poor numbers at CBP heading into the night: both Cesar Hernandez (.535 OPS, ranking 156th out of the aforementioned 158 MLB players) and Freddy Galvis (.567, 153rd) were also among the big league's worst hitters at home. Peter Bourjos (.478 OPS in 83 plate appearances) didn't have enough home plate appearances to qualify for that list.

It might help Franco, who came into the season as arguably the only real proven threat in the middle of the lineup, that others have been contributing lately. Asche is hitting .328 in his last 18 games and Cameron Rupp (3-for-4 on Friday) raised his average to .283 in 50 games this season.

"I think he’s getting there," Mackanin said of Franco. "Little by little he’s getting to where we want to be."

The 23-year-old Franco, a Rookie of the Year candidate before breaking his hand last August, entered the weekend hitting .247 with a .745 OPS. Those numbers ranked 21st and 19th, respectively, among the 23 qualifying major league third basemen.

But in his last 10 games, Franco is hitting .324 (12-for-37) with two home runs, three doubles, and a triple. And perhaps most significantly, more walks (eight) than strikeouts (seven) over that stretch.

Franco is following the recent advice of his hitting coach, Steve Henderson

"Just take what they give to you," Franco said of Henderson's words. "If they don’t want to pitch to you, take a walk. And if they make a mistake, you have to be ready for that mistake.

"The last 6-7 games I’ve had like 6-7 walks [8 walks in 9 games], so I’m seeing more pitches and I’m trying to be more selective at home plate. That’s what happening right now."

•  Jeremy Hellickson, the Phillies player most likely to no longer be a Phillies player before the arrival of the August 1 trade deadline, continued to look like a legit trade piece. Hellickson allowed the aforementioned two-out run in the second inning but nothing else over six innings. Hellickson's line: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K.

If you take away one clunker in Washington on June 10 (7 ER in 6 innings), Hellickson has a 3.03 ERA in 10 of his last 11 starts, with 54 strikeouts and 13 walks in 62 1/3 innings over those 10 games. 

•  Obudel Herrera's leadoff home run gave him nine on the season, one more than he hit in all of 2015. Herrera has nine home runs in 341 plate appearances/80 games this year; he had eight in 537 plate appearances/147 games as a rookie last year.

"I’m just putting the ball in play, I don’t think I’m doing anything different," Herrera said. "I’m working really hard, though. I just want to get better, and it’s showing."

Herrera is the Phillies odds-on favorite to be named to represent the team at the MLB All-Star Game. Rosters will be announced this Tuesday, a week before the game.

"I don’t have it in my mind (but) I’d love to be part of the All-Star Game," he said. "If it happens, great, if it doesn’t, it’s OK, I just want to help my team win."

•  Aaron Nola (5-7, 4.45 ERA) will attempt to get out of his four-game funk on Saturday night, when he starts opposite Kansas City left-hander Danny Duffy (3-1, 3.24). Nola has almost allowed more earned runs in his last four games (22 in 13 innings) than he allowed in the 12 that preceded them (23 in 78 innings).

During the Phillies recent road trip, Mackanin had Nola quit playing catch before batting practice in an attempt to let the 23-year-old right-hander clear his head, not unlike instructing a slumping hitter to take a break from batting practice (both with the team and in the cage).

"Something to change up his thought process," Mackanin said.

The manager said the pitcher's problem is not difficult to diagnose.

"The more I look at video and all of it, all of his good starts the ball was at the knees," Mackanin said. "All of his bad starts, the ball is elevated. He’s not keeping the ball down in the zone. (Pitching coach Bob) McClure talked to him about that. (Saturday) is very important. Because we don’t want him to lose confidence. He needs that for his own confidence."

•  Phillies top prospect J.P. Crawford had a night in Allentown on Friday. He went 3-for-4 with a run, an RBI, and a pretty ridiculous defensive play.

The 21-year-old Crawford is hitting .243 at Triple-A Lehigh Valley on May 20, but, in his last 19 games he's batting .329.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21