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April 19, 2016

Franco dropped to fifth as Phils try to get MLB-worst offense in gear

A decade and a half ago, Pete Mackanin was on a major league coaching staff for the first time with the Montreal Expos. The four-year stint (1997-2000) coincided with a time when Vladimir Guerrero wasn’t only breaking into the big leagues, but also establishing himself as one of the best right-handed hitters in the game.

In the three-year span from 1998-2000, his first full three years in the major leagues, Guerrero averaged 41 home runs, 34 doubles and eight triples per year, while hitting .328 with a 1.002 OPS.

But Guerrero, so famous for being a free-swinger that he’d even hit pitches that bounced before they reached home plate, went through slumps like anyone else, too. So when Mackanin, now a first-time manager with the Phillies, was asked about his own slumping right-handed slugger, Maikel Franco, he recalled those days watching Guerrero work his way out of a funk.

“Just try to stay up the middle,” Mackanin said. “We all know (Guerrero) was a wild swinger, he could hit any pitch anywhere. When he wasn’t swinging well or getting hits, he’d slap a few singles to right field for a couple of days, he’s get himself back under control, and start thinking more than trying to hit a four-run homer with nobody on base.

“So (Franco) has to get that mentality. Take what they give you, and if they pitch around you or aren’t giving you what you want, look in a zone and don’t miss it instead of trying to hit everything.”

After slotting Franco third (seven times) and fourth (six times) in his regular lineup through the first two weeks of the season, Mackanin has shifted Franco down another notch, to the fifth spot, for tonight’s game against the New York Mets. It’s not a demotion, but instead a different look.

It's the first time Franco hasn't hit third or fourth in the starting lineup since June 14 of last year (when he hit fifth).

“It’s funny, sometimes it works,” Mackanin said of one of the different methods to get a hitter going. “We’ve seen guy who doesn’t play for a day or two, then pinch hits, gets a big hit and all of a sudden the confidence factor kicks in.”

Franco enters Tuesday night’s game at Citizens Bank Park in a 2-for-21 slump. Both of his hits during that span are singles. In the last five games, he has struck out five times and hasn’t reached on a walk.

What’s been going wrong? Franco said it’s been pretty simple, “swinging at bad pitches.”

“I just have to try to be more consistent and more selective at the plate,” he said. “I have to be more patient at home plate and try to figure it out.”

Although this is Franco’s first full season in the big leagues, it’s not his first time struggling at the plate for a stretch. Last July, Franco endured a 6-for-35 (.171) slump over a 10-game period.

But he showed maturity for a player with less than three months of experience in the big leagues when he came out of it, hitting .276 (16-for-58) with three home runs and eight doubles over the next 15 games before getting hit with a pitch in the hand and landing on the DL.

The difference between last year and this year, of course, is Franco is now a proven commodity in an otherwise weak lineup. Pitchers have a better book on him and can act accordingly.

“They had to make an adjustment,” Franco said, “and I have to make an adjustment to the pitchers, too.”

Franco contested his manager’s opinion that he’s both over-swinging and possibly putting pressure on himself as a middle-of-the-lineup cog in a lineup that could use his regular production.

“I’m not putting pressure on myself,” Franco said. “I know I can do better, I know I can do well in the game. It’s just a part of the game. It’s a tough moment for me right now, for the team. But we’ll figure it out. Today, we’re starting today. Just go out and play the game and try to win the ballgame.”

The Phillies offense entered play on Tuesday with averaging 2.57 runs per game, worst in the major leagues. They’ve scored more than three runs just twice in 14 games.

The Phils have scored two or fewer in four of their last six (they scored exactly three in the other two games over that weeklong span.

“Everybody is going through a tough moment, but you have to realize that you have to stay strong, and keep your mind ready every single day,” Franco said. “I know it’s not going to happen every single day. But you have to try to make an adjustment so you can get better every single day.”

Mackanin opted to hit reserve infielder Andres Blanco third, followed by Ryan Howard and Franco, on Friday night against Mets right-hander Logan Verrett.

“Blanco is swinging the bat as well or better than anybody that we’ve got, so I just thought I’d put him in there and see if he can jump-start the offense a little bit,” Mackanin said.

Blanco is starting at second base in place of Cesar Hernandez, who is hitting .130 (3-for-23) in his last six games after hitting .409 in his first six games of 2016.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21