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April 20, 2017

Franco busts out of slump and Phillies audition new closer in win over Mets

NEW YORK – After working a walk the first time he stepped to the plate at Citi Field this year, following a hitless weekend in Washington, Maikel Franco ripped a screaming line drive to left field in his second trip.

The ball came off Franco’s bat at 113-MPH. It was hit so hard that Franco barely had time to begin blitzing up the first base line before it found a resting place in Yoenis Cespedes’ glove.

Two days later, Franco was still waiting for his first hit in a week.

“Sometimes you get frustrated,” Franco said on Thursday afternoon before the Phillies series finale with the New York Mets. “Sometimes you have to not think about that. But sometimes you get frustrated, especially when you're 0 for 10, 0 for 13 and you hit the ball really well and somebody catches it. Sometimes you get frustrated, but it's part of the game. I have to forget that kind of stuff. I have to be ready 100 percent, ready to go, out there every day and do what I can do.”

Despite some hard hit outs and strikeout (nine in 60 plate appearances) and walk (five) numbers that were not indicative of a struggling player, Franco entered Thursday’s game hitting .148 on the young season with a .217 OBP and three extra-base hits. And his last hit, period, came eight days earlier.

But Franco was able to poke his head out from his early-season slump, battling back from an 0-2 count against the hardest-throwing pitcher in the league by ripping a run-scoring double to left field in the third inning, out of the reach of Cespedes this time, and then adding a solo home run for insurance later in the night in fueling the Phillies to a 6-4 victory over the Mets.

"Amazing," Franco said of a breakout night following a week without a hit. "Like I said, I haven’t given up. ...  I’m just going out there and trying to prove myself. I just want to get better, I want to swing the bat good and put good contact on it. Sometimes it’s tough. But I just have the goal in my mind to go out there, play the game the right way, and try to do everything I can do to help my team."

Franco finished the night 2-for-4 with two RBI and a walk.

"Franco's not going to hit .150, .160," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys hitting .380 and .400, they're not going to hit .380 and .400. Everything evens out. Once we get everybody where they're supposed to be, I think we'll be OK."

The win clinched the Phils’ first series victory over the Mets in over a year, since taking two of three at Citi Field to cap their first road trip of the 2016 season. Thursday night’s win was perhaps more improbable because of the aforementioned hard-throwing right-hander on the mound for the team from Flushing.

Noah Syndergaard, the owner of a triple-digit fastball, came into the game having allowed just two earned runs in his first three starts (0.95 ERA) and as the only pitcher in Mets history to rack up 20 strikeouts in his first three games of the season without allowing a walk. Syndergaard looked like a guy who might flirt with a no-hitter or a 18-strikeout game in the game’s first inning, when he struck out the side on 14 pitches, 13 of them for strikes, and nine of those pitches coming in at 99-MPH or faster.

So, of course, in the second inning, the Phillies ripped four straight hits off Syndergaard to jump out to a three-run lead, a lead that grew to 5-1 an inning later with Franco’s slump-busting double and one of three productive at-bats for Aaron Altherr. The early add-on runs were critical after Aaron Nola served up a three-run home run to Neil Walker in the bottom half of the inning.

Nola, who was sharp in his first two starts of the season, scuffled on Thursday. He managed to give the Phils five innings but had more walks than strikeouts in a game for just the second time in his career.

"I had terrible two-strike pitches, especially 0-2," Nola said. "The 0-2 pitch to Walker it was a curveball that just hung up in the zone."

The Walker home run was the 13th that Phillies pitchers have given up on 0-2 pitches since the beginning of the 2016 season.

Nola, who has failed to go more than five innings in each of his last two starts, had plenty of help from his friends, however. First the plucky Phillies' lineup and then from a new-look 'pen.

After getting two perfect innings from lefty Joely Rodriguez, manager Pete Mackanin flip-flopped his set-up man and closer on Thursday night, leading to a third different reliever auditioning for the Phillies' ninth-inning role in the first three weeks of the season. 

Joaquin Benoit, the 39-year-old former closer who replace Jeanmar Gomez last week, came out for the eighth. Benoit served up a walk-off home run to Bryce Harper four days earlier, but handled himself just fine in the eighth inning at Citi Field.

Hector Neris, the right-hander with the deadly splitter who many pegged would take the closer job at some point in 2017, looked fit for the job in relief of Benoit. Neris recorded a perfect 1-2-3 inning to collect his third career save, and perhaps, his first as the Phillies official closer moving forward in 2017. ... although Mackanin almost went out of his way to make sure no one was named the official anything after the game.

"As I said originally, I'm not naming anybody the closer," said Mackanin, who named Jeanmar Gomez the closer at the beginning of spring training and then removed him from the job a week into the season in favor of Benoit. 

"I was going to use Benoit for the time being," Mackanin continued. "It just occurred to me: It's nice to have two guys who can close. It was a good opportunity for me to use Neris. He came through very well."

Mackanin said he'll "probably" use Neris again, but wasn't agreeing that he was going with a closer-by-committee, or going with matchups, or with any specific game plan or strategy for the ninth inning moving forward.

"I don't want to name it anything," he said. "You hear it a lot these days, about how pitchers are being used differently with different teams. I just look at it like this: It's nice to have two guys I trust in the eighth and the ninth. I trust both of those guys. I just seized the opportunity to try it tonight."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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