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May 22, 2017

Usual suspects strike again as Phillies fall for 18th time in last 22 games

Prior to Monday night’s game at Citizens Bank Park, the manager of the free-falling Phillies was asked if he considered benching an underperforming player to send a message or attempt to wake the said player’s slumbering bat.

Pete Mackanin’s initial answer came with a story from his own playing career.

“When I played (there was a time once) I didn't play for about a week, and finally I went into the office to ask the manager if I was going to play anymore and he said, 'How come it took you so long to ask me?’” Mackanin said. “I said, ‘Well, maybe I should have come in earlier.’”

Mackanin was again asked if deploying a similar tactic could help. He said he’d consider it.

But here’s the real answer: if he went that route, Mackanin would have to bench each of the three hitters who hit in the middle of his lineup, 3 through 5 in the batting order, on Opening Day.

With the game still in reach (down two runs) and two batters after new three-hole hitter Aaron Altherr led off the seventh inning with his second double of the game off Colorado Rockies rookie Jeff Hoffman, Maikel Franco swung badly and missed at a strike three for the second straight at-bat. 

Odubel Herrera followed by bouncing out weakly to third base for the final out of the inning, stranding Altherr in scoring position. Michael Saunders didn’t have a chance in the inning because he was demoted to the eighth spot in Mackanin’s lineup.

Herrera angrily slammed his helmet into the ballpark’s grass after reaching first base. It’s been that kind of month (year?) for the three hitters expected to populate the middle of the lineup and regularly produce runs.

A day after being shut out in Pittsburgh, the Phillies dropped their third straight defeat in an 8-1 loss to the Rockies. The loss was the 18th in the last 22 games for the Phils.

They managed all of three hits on Monday night. Not surprisingly, none of those three came from Herrera, Franco or Saunders.

"It's very frustrating," said Herrera, who is 5-for-39 with 11 strikeouts in his last 10 games. "I feel that I'm being selective, I feel that I'm waiting for my pitches. But, when I make contact, things don't happen."

While Altherr and Tommy Joseph have produced in the last month in the middle of the order, the players who vacated those spots have joined the starting pitchers and the beleaguered bullpen as the problem spots on a team going nowhere fast in 2017. Entering Monday, here is what the currently terrible trio had slashed in the month of May:

Herrera: .208/.228/.286

Franco: .242/.304/.387

Saunders: .217/.277/.433

They have fewer RBIs this month combined (18) than Altherr (19). They are not helping the Phillies avoid what’s been an endless supply of losing streaks in the last month.

The 30-year-old Saunders, whom the Phillies signed to a one-year, $9 million deal as a free agent in January, entered Monday hitting .227 in 2017. Saunders’ .656 OPS and 15 RBI each ranked 19th out of 21 qualifying major league right fielders.

On Monday, he hit eighth for the first time since Sept. 18 of last season. But that was also in a Toronto lineup that includes the likes of Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Joe Bautista, and Troy Tulowitzki.

“He's not hitting,” Mackanin said bluntly of demoting his Opening Day five-hole hitter to the eighth spot in his lineup. “He looks like he should be hitting but it's basically ... I know he's a better hitter than he's shown. But it is what it is.”

Herrera, who hit .291 with a .353 OBP in his first two big league seasons, came into Monday with a .632 OPS. That ranked 18th best out of 21 qualifying major league center fielders.

"I feel that I'm swinging the bat well," Herrera said. "Good swings. But I'm just missing. Just missing. Missing by just a little bit. ...That's why I'm frustrated."

Franco, who has been marred by inconsistency since becoming a full-time big leaguer two years ago, had a .657 OPS entering Monday. That ranked 24th out of 27 qualifying third baseman. Franco’s -0.6 WAR ranked 26th on the same list.

Herrera, Franco, and Saunders went a combined 0-for-9 with three strikeouts on Monday. They have combined for 47 strikeouts (and 11 walks) in 199 at-bats in May.

“It's not fun when I see guys erratic and not hitting,” Mackanin said before Monday’s game. “Believe me it's not something I like to see, because you don't win games if you don't hit.”

The old baseball adage proved true again on Monday night.

Valentin, Dominguez sidelined

The last man cut in major league camp and a young right-hander shining brightest among a stable of young A-ball starting pitchers are both out indefinitely.

Jesmuel Valentin, a second base prospect who impressed in Spring Training, suffered a separated shoulder while diving for a ball and could miss the remainder of the 2017 season following surgery. Valentin was hitting .229 in 29 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

With Valentin sidelined, top second base prospect Scott Kingery could earn a promotion to the IronPigs, although general manager Matt Klentak said such a move was "not imminent." Kingery, No.6 in the PhillyVoice Prospect Power Rankings, hit his Eastern League-leading 14th home run of the season on Monday night.

Class A Clearwater right-hander Seranthony Dominguez, No.8 on the same list, hasn't pitched since May 13 while nursing a shoulder injury. Klentak said his status was still to be determined.

The 22-year-old Dominguez was 3-0 with a 2.02 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings in seven games with the Threshers.

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