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May 22, 2016

Phillies' Odubel Herrera taking pride - and finding success - in leadoff role

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052216_Herrera_Phillies_AP Chris Szagola/AP

Odubel Herrera has found quite the comfort zone in the leadoff spot since manager Pete Mackanin moved him into that role just over a month ago.

If you mess with the bull, you're going to get the horns. At least that's how the saying goes.

And, in the case of center fielder Odubel Herrera, the size of the bull matters very little.

The guy they call "El Torito" -- or "the little bull" -- is a huge reason the Philadelphia Phillies are six games over .500 with just over a week remaining before the calendar flips to June. And through the first quarter of the season, he's been goring opposing pitchers with the kind of gruesome regularity you would expect from a Quentin Tarantino film.

Two months ago, however, manager Pete Mackanin was hesitant to move Herrera from his penciled-in-slot as the team's No. 3 hitter up to the leadoff spot. One of the main reasons for that? Mackanin didn't want to move one of his most productive hitters -- one who, according to the manager, has a lot of "pop" -- to a spot in the order where RBI opportunities would be few and far between.

Instead, Mackanin preferred he remains immediately in front of then-cleanup hitter Maikel Franco.

But after the early-season struggles of Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez, Mackanin was forced to move Herrera into the leadoff spot. Since, Herrera's made it impossible for his manager, who has used 38 different lineups through the first 46 games of the season, to move him anywhere else in the order.

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Those numbers -- coupled with the team's 25-19 record -- have the manager singing a different tune than he was in the early spring.

"It's great to have a guy like that start a game for you," Mackanin said Sunday. "With his energy and ability to draw walks -- or get hit by a pitch [laugh]. Or he can get a base hit, hit a double. And he's got homer power too."

In 28 games (107 ABs) since moving to the leadoff spot, Herrera's hitting 100 points higher than he had been through the first 15 games of the season (.255 average). And it's no coincidence that Herrera's thrived in that position.

Simply put, the 24-year-old outfielder loves setting the table for his teammates. 

"I feel comfortable [in the leadoff spot]," Herrera said, with the help of a translator, following a 4-for-5 performance Sunday. "I like the leadoff position, and it's something that I've done before. But it's something I take pride in doing because I like getting on base and I know that's what the leadoff guy is supposed to do."

It's not just Herrera's ability to get on base that has impressed his manager; it's also how he's been able to do it.

"He's got the ability to hit a lot of pitches over the plate," Mackanin said. "A lot of players can handle one area of the plate -- that's their strength. Odubel is able to hit a bigger portion of that plate and I think that's what makes him good. He can put the barrel of the bat on the ball inside, outside, up, down. He has a knack at doing that, which is something you can't teach."

It has, however, taken some adjustment and change in approach on Herrera's end.

"I am trying to see more pitches," he said. "It's part of being the leadoff man and, like I said, I am very proud of being the leadoff man. I like what I'm doing and I just need to keep getting better because I see that when I get on base, my teammates will bring me around."

Sunday's 5-0 win over the Atlanta Braves was a perfect microcosm of what Herrera's been able to do over the last month-plus. 

In each of his first four plate appearances, Herrera reached safely, doing so a different way each time. With a double, a nine-pitch walk and an infield single (not to mention he was hit in his third at-bat), it was death by a thousand small bull horns for Braves pitchers.

And when El Torito stepped to the plate for the fifth time, it was almost literally death.

Herrera roped a line drive back at Atlanta's Ian Krol that caused a collective gasp from the crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

After the game, Herrera joked that he was trying to hit Krol with the line drive as payback for being hit by Braves starter Casey Kelly earlier in the game. Even more upsetting for Herrera was that the play kept him from reaching base in all five of his plate appearances.

Instead, he'd have to settle one a 2-for-3 day -- one that saw his season average to .325 overall, good for eighth in the National League (among players with at least 100 plate appearances).

Mackanin may have originally been hesitant to put Herrera atop his lineup -- and those concerns remain valid based on the Phillies' first two games against the Braves -- but with the way he's going now, it's hard to imagine him hitting anywhere else.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin