April 06, 2016
CINCINNATI – Andres Blanco grabbed a helmet and a bat and began to get comfortable near the on-deck circle when Cedric Hunter swung at a Caleb Cotham pitch. For the second time in as many at-bats, Hunter watched Billy Hamilton lay out in shallow center to rob him of a hit.
It was the final out of the top of the seventh inning, so Blanco never came up to bat. And Aaron Nola wasn’t removed from the game.
By the powers of the transitive property, Billy Hamilton saved the Phillies on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park. Or, at the very least, he saved Pete Mackanin from having to make the difficult decision of removing his starter with a one-run after just six innings and 79 pitches in a near-dominating effort against the Cincinnati Reds for the second straight game.
It saved him for a little while, at least.
Mackanin still had to turn to the pen an inning later and when he did, he called on the very man who couldn’t record an out on Opening Day. On Wednesday, David Hernandez was perfect in the eighth.
But in the ninth, Dalier Hinojosa was not.
After a visit from Mackanin with the bases loaded and one out, Hinojosa tried to sneak a two-strike pitch by Scott Schebler. Instead, Schebler annihilated the pitch, sending it deep into the gap in left-center, bringing the game-tying and game-winning runs in as the Reds walked off with a 3-2 victory.
“These close ones are killing me already after two games,” Mackanin said afterward. “It’s going to be an interesting process to work our way through those things. Hopefully, we don’t have one-run games the rest of the year.”
Hinojosa, the 30-year-old Cuban signed for $4 million by Boston 2 1/2 years ago but cut loose by the Red Sox last summer, failed in the first save opportunity of his big league career. He gave up hits to four of the five batters he faced.
“I’m very confident in my abilities to close the game,” Hinojosa said afterward through a translator. “I know I can do the job. These things happen. I just have to make the right adjustments to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
The Phillies will attempt to beat the rain and avoid a series sweep in a matinee on Thursday (a 12:35 p.m. start) before taking their season-opening road trip to Citi Field this weekend.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Wednesday night’s game wasn’t the bullpen blowing up for the second time in as many games, but that the two players most likely to survive the rebuild and be contributors when the Phillies are contenders again put the team in position to win after seven innings. Aaron Nola’s arm and Maikel Franco’s bat were in regular season form.
Franco, who hit a major league-best nine home runs in spring training, and another in an exhibition game against the Phillies Futures team, too, hit a two-run home run off Cincinnati starter Brandon Finnegan in the first inning.
“Franco hit the crap out of that ball,” Mackanin said of an opposite field shot Franco managed to knife through a fierce wind coming off the Ohio River.
Nola, meanwhile, was brilliant in the first start of his first full season in the major leagues. After serving up a solo home run to Eugenio Suarez, the second batter he faced in the game, Nola retired 20 of the next 23 batters, eight via strikeout.
The only three batters to reach during that stretch did so on singles. Nola tied a career high with eight strikeouts and did not walk a batter on Wednesday.
“He was efficient with his pitches,” Mackanin said. “I kept thinking he threw too many strikes, but he just pinpoints that fastball and it is tough to square up.”
Nola appeared to pick up steam each time he trotted out to the mound to not another inning to his gaudy pitching line.
“I felt like I got into a rhythm, I was getting ahead of guys, pounding the strike zone,” he said. “Cam (Rupp) caught a good game behind the plate. I felt like I got some early outs, too, which helped me get deeper into the game.”
When Nola’s night was deemed done after seven innings and 95 pitches, it was time for the bullpen’s chance for redemption.
Hernandez, who walked two batters and gave up a double to another to lay a torch to a 2-1 lead in the eighth two days earlier, struck out the first batter he faced and didn’t allow the ball to leave the infield on Wednesday. The veteran 30-year-old reliever, who called his Phillies debut “embarrassing” was able to bounce back in impressive fashion.
But, two games into the season, asking two relievers to get the job done has been asking for too much.
“It’s unfortunate that we let one get away again,” Hernandez said. “Over the course of the season, it will even out. We definitely have the arms in the bullpen to get guys out. It’s just early. We’ll bounce back and be alright. If starting pitching keeps going like that, we’ll be just fine.”