August 28, 2016
NEW YORK – It wasn’t easy for the 35-year-old A.J. Ellis to leave the only professional baseball organization he’d known at a moment’s notice. Not long after the deal that sent him to Philadelphia and Carlos Ruiz to Los Angeles became official on Thursday, Ellis said Dodgers three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was also “shocked” and that both cried.
Upon arriving to his new team, Ellis figured the best way to adjust was to dive right into his work.
He spent the majority of Saturday's pregame in the bullpen, catching side sessions from Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson. He took advantage of not being in the lineup by jumping right back into the pen for the second half of Saturday night's game, talking to the relievers about pitch count preferences, out pitches, signs, and other helpful information to "smooth the transition."
Pete Mackanin flirted with the idea of throwing his newest player right into the lineup on Day One, but thought a matchup with Mats flamethrower Noah Syndergaard wouldn’t have been the best first impression to make with his veteran backup catcher. So the first-year manager plugged Ellis into Sunday afternoon’s lineup instead.
And in his first game as a Phillie, Ellis, who had done all of the preparation, delivered on both sides of the field.
With the bases loaded, no one out, and the Phillies and Mets tied at one run a piece, Ellis ripped a double, just his seventh extra-base hit of the season, over Curtis Grandson’s head and to the left field fence to bring two runners in and help guide his new team to a 5-1 victory.
"It’s just great to be playing baseball again, you kind of lose yourself in the competition and then playing again," Ellis said. "It was a long morning for me prepping, but as soon as that first pitch came, I was back in the game and felt right where I was supposed to be. ... It feels good to drive in runs, feels good to help put your team ahead and help contribute to a team win."
The win, just their third in their last eight games, helped the Phillies avoid a sweep at Citi Field. Ellis, who entered the game hitting .194 in 53 games this season, finished the game 1-for-4 with two RBI and a run scored.
"New guy on the team," Mackanin said. "That was nice to see."
The Phillies tacked on two more runs in the pivotal seventh inning when Peter Bourjos was hit on the wrist by a pitch with the bases loaded and Cesar Hernandez followed with a sacrifice fly. Sunday marked just the third time in the Phillies last 10 games that they scored more than four runs.
In addition to coming through with a clutch hit, Ellis did his part to help battery mate Vince Velasquez give the Phillies five serviceable innings. Velasquez needed 27 pitches to get through a troublesome first inning, but held the scalding Mets lineup to one run in the frame and kept them off the scoreboard in the next four innings, too, racking up seven strikeouts along the way.
"You can’t say enough of what these guys on the mound did out there today, what Vince did, his pitch count got elevated the first two innings and he was able to grind through the last three to turn the ball over to David (Hernandez) in the sixth," Ellis said. "That showed a lot to me, the way he was able to battle and bulldog his way through five tough innings."
Seeing his pitch count escalate early has been an almost regular occurrence for Velasquez in his first full major league season. He needed 103 pitched for his five innings on Sunday. He has pitched fewer than six innings in 11 of his 23 starts this season, and has pitched seven or more innings just twice.
"It just sucks to put yourself in situations like that every outing. ... I don’t want to be in that situation," Velasquez said. "I’m going to have to battle through it, but that’s just something to keep under my cap and work on in the offseason and to approach it the right way coming into spring training."
But Velasquez was able to find solace in an otherwise strong performance (seven strikeouts, one walk). He entered the game on the heels of three straight losses (and a 10.47 ERA in those three games).
Before Sunday, the Phillies hadn't won a game Velasquez had started since July 8, the Friday before the All-Star break. But his new battery mate was impressed in the first look at the pitcher from behind the plate.
"The stuff is electric," Ellis said. "He has so many weapons, so many options. When he keeps growing and keeps polishing that gift up, it’s going to be really, really special. So I’m excited to be able to continue to work with him, excited now to work with him and (pitching coach) Bob McClure and Cameron Rupp, kind of talk to them about things, things he sees, that we see, together, we can build a plan for him going forward in his career.
Other tidbits from Sunday's win:
• Hector Neris pitched a perfect eighth inning, striking out one of the three batters he faced. The 27-year-old right-hander is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA since June 17. Neris has struck out 42 of the 120 batters he's faced during that 31-game span while walking only four.
Following Sunday's game, here's what Ellis had to say about the Phils' trio of Neris, Edubray Ramos, and Jeanmar Gomez in the back of the team's bullpen:
Pretty good compliment from A.J. Ellis, on what the rest of the league thinks about back of Phillies bullpen: pic.twitter.com/XR4LmrK53X— Ryan Lawrence (@ryanlawrence21) August 28, 2016
• The Phillies ended back-to-back innings with runners being thrown out at home plate early in Sunday's game. Freddy Galvis tried to score from third after Cesar Hernandez tried (and failed) to bunt for a base hit in the third inning while Aaron Altherr tried to score from first on a Jimmy Paredes double an inning later.
"Altherr was watching the ball," Mackanin said. "I think he thought it was a home run. He assumed. We talked to him about that; you can't assume anything. Freddy probably shouldn't have gone. But he was trying to be aggressive."
• Vince Velasquez has 129 innings on the season following Sunday's win. Mackanin said the team was likely looking at "maybe 150 innings, or more, right in there" before shutting the 24-year-old right-hander down for the season.
If Velasquez continues to average five to six innings per start, he could make around four more starts, although nothing is definitive. Prior to this season, Velasquez had pitched more than 100 innings in one year (2013) in five full seasons since being drafted by the Houston Astros in 2010.
Mackanin said the Phillies would likely also look to shut rookie right-hander Jake Thompson down at some point in September, too. Thompson, who starts on Monday in Philadelphia opposite Washington's Tanner Roark, is 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA in his first four major league starts.
Jeremy Hellickson will finish the rest of the 2016 season in a Phillies uniform, according to a CSNPhilly.com report.
Like Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard (and most major league veterans), Hellickson was placed on waivers, but according to CSNPhilly, Hellickson was claimed and the Phillies were not able to work out a trade with the claiming team. The 29-year-old Hellickson, who endured his second-shortest start of the season in Saturday’s blowout loss to the Mets, is eligible to become a free agent for the first time in his career this winter.
After failing to strike a deal with Hellickson as trade bait both before last month’s trade deadline and this month’s waiver deadline (players acquired after Sept. 1 are not postseason eligible), the Phillies must tender Hellickson a qualifying offer this winter in order to gain compensation should he sign elsewhere as a free agent. The qualifying offer for free agents is expected to be in the neighborhood of $17 million.
If the Phils make Hellickson that qualifying offer, they run the risk that he accepts it and is down on the 2017 payroll for a one-year deal of around $17 million (which probably isn’t that big of a deal, since they have few other lucrative financial commitments on next year’s payroll). If they don’t make him the offer, they wouldn’t receive anything if he leaves as a free agent.
And there’s also this: Hellickson becomes a somewhat less attractive option on the free agent market if he’d tied to a qualifying offer. Unless they finish with one of the 10 worst records in baseball in 2016, the team that signs him would forfeit a top pick in the 2017 draft.
On Monday, Andres Blanco will be five weeks removed from surgery on a fractured left index finger. But it’s unlikely he will be activated when rosters expand on Thursday.
Blanco took infield practice for the first time on Saturday but hasn’t faced live pitching since suffering the injury on July 25. Blanco said he planned to hit off a batting tee on Monday; his hitting has been limited to dry swings.
Blanco said his mobility is probably around “80 percent.”
“The process takes a while,” he said.
It’s uncertain if Blanco will need to go on a minor league rehab assignment. But with his role as a bench player, it’s possible the Phillies can activate him after he begins to take regular batting practice when his left hand is strong enough.
In other injury news, outfield prospect Roman Quinn saw his path to a possible September call-up foiled when he was placed on the disabled list at Double-A Reading.