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August 19, 2016

Herrera's bat comes alive, but Cards rally to beat Gomez, Phillies

Raise your hand if, five months ago when the Phillies were about to leave spring training, you ever envisioned a scenario where Jeanmar Gomez would collect 32 saves in the 2016 season.

If your hand is up in the air, you're not a very good liar. Free agent addition David Hernandez and Cuban import Dalier Hinojosa were favorites to close games for the Phillies, with non-roster signees and former big league closers Andrew Bailey and Edward Mujica in the mix, too.

Gomez was a perfectly fine reliever for the Phillies in 2015. But they liked him as the even-keel, dependable middle-inning reliever and everyone knew he didn't have the prototypical stuff that plays up in the ninth inning.

Gomez, of course, took that dependability and proved to be an unflappable veteran to take over the closer's role when everyone else failed. Manager Pete Mackanin has repeatedly called him the team's "last choice" as closer and there we all were in July, talking about Gomez as a potential All-Star candidate.

Like any reliever, Gomez is allowed to have a bad night. One of those came on Friday, when he served up a game-tying two-run home run to Jedd Gyorko as the St. Louis Cardinals came from behind to beat the Phillies 4-3 in 11 innings. Randal Grichuk, who homered earlier in the game, hit a game-winning double off Frank Herrman in the 11th to give the Cardinals the first and only lead they had in the game.

"He hung a split to Gyorko, it was center cut," Mackanin said. "He’s been so good for us all year, that’s only his third blown save. I can’t fault him, although it would have been nice to win that game tonight."

It was actually Gomez's fourth blown save, which still isn't bad five months into the season.

Gomez is 32-for-36 in save opportunities this season. Only four big league closers have more saves and fewer blown saves. 

That's not bad for a guy who was non-tendered by the Pittsburgh Pirates 21 months ago.

While Gomez couldn't hold down a two-run lead, Friday's loss probably had a lot more to do with the fact that their offense came courtesy of two players: Freddy Galvis and Odubel Herrera. The two Venezuelans, at the top of Mackanin's lineup on Friday, collected back-to-back hits in the first inning to score the game's first run and hit back-to-back home runs in the sixth.

The rest of the night involved the Phillies offense regular stranding runners in scoring position.

"The offense just didn’t capitalize on scoring opportunities," Mackanin said. "We had our chances and couldn’t capitalize. A man on third base with less than two outs, twice. Couldn’t get him in, couldn’t make contact. We had men in scoring position, we had chances. We couldn’t capitalize."

On Thursday, Mackanin was asked about a number of the younger players on his team – which is just about the whole roster – when the subject came around to the player that represented his team at the All-Star Game last month.

Odubel Herrera, clearly the team’s most consistent offensive player for the season’s first three months, was mired in a six-week funk that got so bad he was on the bench five times in an 11-game span earlier this month.

"I don't know,” Mackanin said of Herrera, who came into Friday hitting .225/.296/.333 in 36 games since July 7. “I can't figure him out. I'd like to figure him out. It's got to be mental.”

There was a point on the Phillies most recent road trip when there were stories about Herrera possibly being passed over by Aaron Altherr as the favorite for the center field job in 2017. Imagine that: an All-Star one month, losing a grip on your starting job the next.

Herrera looked lost for most of July and then into August, too. More than 26 percent of his at-bats in the aforementioned six-week, 36-game stretch ended in strikeouts.

“It looked to me that he kind of relaxed after making the All-Star team, and kind of said, 'OK, I'm here and now I'm good,’” Mackanin continued the other day. “He had a few bad games and now he's trying too hard to say, 'OK, I'll start getting my hits again.’ … Somehow we've got to get him back to where he was.”

Perhaps a late game scratch Thursday to Cesar Hernandez has helped Herrera get out of his funk. 

Back in the leadoff spot (where he’s hit in 76 of his 113 starts this season) for the second straight game on Friday, after not hitting there for a month, Herrera helped fuel the Phillies offense in the game's first seven innings, before the bullpen unraveled and the team suffered its third loss in their last four games.

Herrera led the game off with a single off Adam Wainwright and then motored home from first base when Freddy Galvis ripped a double into the gap, scoring the game’s first run. After Adam Morgan held the Cards to one run (Grichuk's home run), Herrera snapped the tie with his 13th home run of the season, putting the Phillies in position to win before the bullpen blew the game.

Maybe it’s a good idea to leave Herrera in the leadoff spot for a while and see if it works?

"He’s still not right," Mackanin said after Friday's game, while also bringing up Hernandez's success lately. "(Herrera) got a couple of hits, but he still doesn't look right at the plate. ... I’m not quite yet ready to put Herrera back in that spot."

So much for a new look getting him back on track. 

Adam Morgan probably isn't in danger is losing his current place in the Phillies starting rotation because ... well, have you paid attention to what's happened with the pitchers in the rotation in the last three weeks? 

Aaron Nola is out for the season with an elbow injury, Zach Eflin had surgery on his right knee on Friday (with more surgery likely this fall), and both Morgan and Jeremy Hellickson are taking the ball this weekend after surviving their own injury scares. 

Still, Morgan had struggled in his extended stay in the rotation earlier this summer, before being sent down to Triple-A.

"He has to start doing something," Mackanin said Friday afternoon. "(Going) 1-7 with a 6 ERA is not good. I think he’s better than that but he has to start showing it. It’s cut and dry."

Morgan did his part on Friday against the Cardinals. The 26-year-old left-hander held St. Louis to one run on five hits in six innings, his best big league start since May.

"When they sent me down, it was the changeup and the two-seam (fastball) that needed to be on more times than not, so I feel good about it," Morgan said. "But there’s still more to improve."

The only real trouble Morgan ran into came in the fifth inning, when he issued a two-out walk to Tommy Pham to load the bases. But Morgan escaped when Stephen Piscotty followed with a fly ball to right field, stranding all three base runners and ending the Cardinals threat. 

"I was thrilled with the way Morgan pitched, using his secondary pitches," Mackanin said. "He looked almost masterful with his changeup, keeping them off balance."

With the aforementioned pitchers sidelined for the remainder of the season, Morgan should have the chance to prove once again that he can be a major league pitcher in the six weeks that remain on the schedule.

"I'm just trying to take advantage of it," Morgan said.

Ryan Howard, who was cleared of any wrongdoing by MLB on Friday related to the Al Jazeera PED report from late December, must have been feeling frisky at the ballpark on Friday. 

The 36-year-old Howard, who entered the night having gone 594 straight games without a stolen base (and without attempting one, either), decided to try to steal second with two outs in the sixth inning. And against the preeminent defensive catcher in the game, Yadier Molina.

As you may have guessed by now, it didn't end successfully.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21