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July 04, 2017

Fined, reprimanded and benched, Herrera is enigma Phillies' brass needs to solve in second half

The Phillies entered their current homestand with a modest three wins in their last five games and so, naturally, manager Pete Mackanin wanted to keep the good tides flowing in the final week before the team’s All-Star break.

When he constructed his starting lineup, Mackanin planned to give Aaron Altherr a day off. With Howie Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez, two of the team’s other better hitters, on the disabled list, the second-year manager had a puzzle in front of him on Monday morning.

And so he decided to bat Maikel Franco, owner of the 14th-lowest OPS in baseball entering the day, in the third spot of the batting order. He had Daniel Nava hitting leadoff for the fifth time in the last seven games and super utility man Andres Blanco batting sixth, behind rookie Nick Williams.

Mackanin actually gave thought to hitting Williams, who had all of three big league games on his resume, third in the lineup but fell back on Franco because he didn’t want to put undue pressure on Williams and “just didn’t feel there was a better option” than his big-swinging but inconsistent third baseman.

Franco rewarded Mackanin’s faith by ripping a two-run home run (with a scorching 110-MPH exit velocity) in the Phillies 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night.

But the lineup manipulations that led to Franco hitting third – and Freddy Galvis hitting second, Blanco sixth, and Nava first – were a byproduct of the season-long effort of the only hitter on the roster with a guaranteed contract beyond the 2017 season.

Odubel Herrera, who inked his name on a 5-year, $30.5 million contract in December, five months after playing in his first All-Star Game, was buried in the seventh spot of Mackanin’s lineup.

Less than a month after appearing to come out of a two-month-long funk by going on a Doubles Parade, hitting 11 in a 10-game stretch (and nine in five games), Herrera is becoming a daily pain on Mackanin’s lineup pen for his inability to give consistent at-bats, let alone produce consistent results.

Mackanin tried to spark Herrera’s motor over the weekend by batting the enigmatic center fielder in the leadoff spot on Friday and Saturday. But Herrera went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts before sitting out Sunday’s game.

Mackanin was asked if he was considering bringing Herrera into his office before the All-Star break and telling him to forget about the last three months and start the second half with a blank slate and fresh mindset.

“I’ve talked to him plenty and I pinch-hit for him the other day,” Mackanin said, referring to Friday night’s game when he sent Nava up to hit in Herrera’s spot with the Phils down a run and the game-tying run on second in the eighth inning at Citi Field.

“He was a little surprised, but I’m basically letting him know that he’s got to step it up," Mackanin continued. “He’s a better hitter. He gets out of control sometimes. He just loses his discipline for some reason. We saw him at the start of June in Atlanta, I don’t think he took a swing where he didn’t hit a line drive somewhere.

“For a while he had it going, he got up to over .250 and on his way and all of a sudden he slid a little backward. I’ve given him a few days off against a lefty against Seattle and then yesterday. A little subtle message, like pinch-hitting for him, might go a long way. It might stir him up a little bit.”

It’s difficult to say what would work to get into Herrera’s head.

Since poking his head up from out of the proverbial doghouse in June, during his aforementioned Doubles Parade, Herrera entered Monday hitting .221 with a .264 OBP, 22 strikeouts, and four walks in his previous 17 games. But it’s not just the numbers that have been troubling.

Herrera also had the following happen during a five-day stretch in the last two weeks:

   • On June 21, Herrera ran through third base coach Juan Samuel’s stop sign while heading to third base in a tie game in the ninth inning. The Phils lost in extra innings.

   • On June 22, he got picked off third base at one point in the game and failed to break on a 3-2 pitch with two outs at another point in the game. Thanks to Aaron Nola, the Phils still won that game.

   • On June 25, reported that Herrera had been fined by Mackanin for ignoring a red light while on the basepaths, trying to steal, and getting picked off in the process.

But to say that Herrera simply had a bad week of mental gaffes or lapses in concentration would hardly be accurate.

Three months ago, in the second game of the season, Herrera was caught stealing second base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the Phillies trailing 2-0 in Cincinnati. Thanks to instant replay review, Herrera was spared somewhat from a mountain of criticism as he was ruled safe. Still, why exactly was he running?

Four weeks later,  in early May, Herrera was asked to come into Mackanin’s office for a pregame chat after a particularly undisciplined night at the plate ended with him 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, one squashing a potential rally in a two-run defeat at Washington.

At the end of May, Mackanin sat Herrera out of the lineup in back-to-back games in Miami in an effort to "correct his flaws" and improve his plate discipline. 

So Mackanin has briefly benched the lone 2016 All-Star, he’s pinch hit for him in a late-game spot, he's demoted and promoted him in the lineup as methods of motivation, and he’s hit him in the wallet via a fine, too. The manager is running out of options.

Perhaps Herrera can simply forget about the first half come a week from Friday when they return from the All-Star break. Or maybe Mackanin has one more move to play:

With Williams up from Allentown and impressing (he hustled out of the box all night Monday, being rewarded with a double in his third trip to the plate), and underrated, possible small trade chip Nava producing, and Altherr as the lineup’s most consistent cog all season, perhaps the best way to send Herrera to the break is with an extended hiatus from the lineup this coming weekend.

If a slap on the hand or monetary discipline isn’t working, take the baseball away from Herrera for the final series of the first half against the Padres this weekend. A weeklong absence from playing regularly could energize the mercurial Herrera, both physically and mentally.

With a four-year, $25 million commitment still due to Herrera following the 2017 season, getting him right should remain one of Mackanin's and the organization’s top priorities in the 2 1/2 months of baseball that remains following the break.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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