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March 21, 2017

Odubel Herrera returns to Phillies from WBC with goals in mind for 2017 season

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Odubel Herrera was in a familiar spot on Tuesday afternoon at Hammond Stadium in Ft. Myers, the Spring Training home of the Minnesota Twins: starting and center field and hitting third for the Phillies.

Barring injuries to himself or anyone else in the lineup, it’s the same spots Herrera will be in 13 days, when the Phillies open the regular season in Cincinnati against the Reds on Monday, April 3. But for the last two weeks, while the Phillies have continued to plow through their Grapefruit League schedule, Herrera was playing left field and trying to keep his name in the lineup for Venezuela’s team in the World Baseball Classic.

Herrera struggled to get his bat going in the WBC and was out of Venezuela’s starting lineup in two of its last three games. He had just one at-bat during that three-game span.

Herrera’s 11 at-bats in five games were a fraction of what fellow outfielders Carlos Gonzalez (26 at-bats in seven games) and Ender Inciarte (24 AB in 7 G) received in the tournament.

“I think I took enough at-bats, obviously I could have taken more,” said Herrera, who said his home country eliminated by Puerto Rico on Saturday. “But I feel like I took enough to get ready for the season.”

The good news for Herrera and the Phillies: the team’s lone 2016 All-Star still has plenty of time to get his swing in midseason form. Beginning with Tuesday’s game in Fort Myers, the Phillies still have 11 more games left on their exhibition season schedule.

Herrera's bat sure didn't look stale in the first of those 11 games: he went 2-for-5 with a double on Tuesday and drove in two of the eight runs the Phillies scored in the last two innings en route to a 9-5 win over the Twins. 

Manager Pete Mackanin joked that the return of third base coach Juan Samuel (also in the WBC, as a coach for the Dominicans) was just what his struggling offense needed. But it was clear the guy in the middle of his lineup – with both his diverse offensive talent and his high- energy level – is becoming the very definition of a difference-maker.

The continued maturation of Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph will be important, as will the contributions of newcomers Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick. But Herrera, the unquestioned best hitter in the lineup, and his regular productivity will give the Phillies their best opportunity to escape their 2016 distinction as baseball's worst offense.

The 25-year-old Herrera is entering his third big league season. He’s coming off a year when his offensive game took a step forward, too.

After hitting .297/.344/.418 with eight home runs and 16 stolen bases as a Rule 5 Draft pick rookie in 2015, Herrera slashed .286/.361/.420 with 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 2016. Herrera was one of just seven big leaguers (and one of just three outfielders) who hit at least 15 homers with at least 25 steals, and an OBP north of .350, joining Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, Jean Segura, and Jonathan Villar.

How does he plan on topping that? With a 20/20 season, a run at a batting title?

“I do have some goals in mind, but I want to keep them to myself,” Herrera said. “I’m trying to be reserved when it comes to that. I’ll try to show (them) as the season goes on.”

Personal goals aside, Herrera looked plenty comfortable on his first day back with his teammates in more than two weeks. Despite receiving little playing time in the last week with Venezuela, Herrera still saw his first WBC experience as a beneficial one.

“I think it helped me a lot because mentally you have to be strong,” he said. “It’s a very competitive atmosphere, you have to be ready for all of the games. The mental part is very important. That’s how you get ready for games like that.”

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