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April 04, 2016

Phillies Notes: Hellickson strong in debut, Mackanin unveils lineup plans

CINCINNATI – Well, at least Jeremy Hellickson wasn’t terrible.

If you’re one of the many Phillies fans whose Opening Day optimism has already reverted back to regular season jadedness, this was likely the positive sentence you were able to muster to your buddy after Monday’s game.

But Jeremy Hellickson was actually better than “not terrible.” He looked every bit of an Opening Day starter for a 28-year-old who has been traded in each of the last two offseason and has sported a 4.86 ERA in the last three seasons.

“He did everything we could have hoped for,” manager Pete Mackanin said after his bullpen blew Hellickson’s effort and led to a 6-2 loss on Monday.

When the Phillies named Hellickson their Opening Day starter two weeks ago, it was explained that the reason for the rotation’s order was to ensure that rising right-hander Aaron Nola would get the nod for the home opener at Citizens Bank Park a week later. Little was made of Hellickson’s worthiness for the Game 1 assignment in Cincinnati.

And that’s probably expected, given the former American League Rookie of the Year’s aforementioned last three seasons. 

But, following Monday’s performance, Hellickson gave reason to believe that he could still have the talent inside his 28-year-old arm that once led him to a 3.02 career ERA after his first 60 major league starts with Tampa Bay.

Hellickson allowed a run in the first inning of his first start with the Phillies, but only because Ryan Howard could not catch a routine throw from Freddy Galvis. After that play, Hellickson retired 15 of the next 16 batters.

“I felt pretty good,” he said. “I was getting ahead for the most part and my command was pretty good, too.”

“We like him because he really knows how to pitch, he changes speeds,” Mackanin said. “He made a lot of guys look bad at the plate.”

One of the guys Hellickson made look bad was one of the National League’s premier hitters over the last decade: Joey Votto.

Hellickson struck out Votto in all three of their matchups on Monday, getting him swinging at a cutter the first time and then on fastballs in the last two, capped by an 88-MPH pitch on the hands that Votto badly flailed at in the sixth inning with the tying run on second.

According to STATS, Hellickson is just the ninth pitcher to strike out Votto three times in a game and the first to do so in two years.

Hellickson will take the ball for the second time this season on Sunday at Citi Field against the reigning National League champion New York Mets. Perhaps Monday was a harbinger for better success to begin a season: Hellickson has a 4.70 ERA in his last nine April starts entering this season.

“I think it’s huge,” Mackanin said of his game on Monday. “Here's a guy who has never been an Opening Day starter and he gave us six strong innings and I the he feels good about himself. He did the job we asked him to do.”

(And then the bullpen completely screwed everything up.)

Pete’s lineup

Cedric Hunter’s one and only major league hit came five years ago this Tuesday.

On Monday, he made his first big league start on Opening Day at Great American Ball Park against the Cincinnati Reds. Hunter, a non-roster player who earned a spot on the roster this weekend after impressing manager Pete Mackanin all spring, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Phillies 6-2 loss.

Hunter nearly collected his first hit in five years in the top of the ninth inning, when Cincinnati center fielder Billy Hamilton made a ridiculous diving catch.

The 28-year-old Hunter could continue to get semi-regular starts in a Phillies outfield that lost two of its projected returning players this spring: Cody Asche (15-day DL, oblique) and Aaron Altherr (60-day DL, wrist surgery).

“We're going to start off as a platoon and give (right-handed hitting Rule 5 pick) Tyler Goeddel a chance even though he didn't have that good of a spring,” Mackanin said. “(Goeddel) showed a few things that he's going to be OK. We'll work him in to start the season and we'll go from there.”

The Phillies are likely to incorporate two platoons in the opening month of the season: Hunter and Goeddel in the outfield and Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf at first base. Howard started on Monday against Cincinnati right-hander Raisel Iglesias while Ruf is expected to start in the second game of the season, on Wednesday against left-hander Brandon Finnegan.

Regardless of who is on the mound on Monday, it sounds like both the 36-year-old Howard and fellow 2008 World Series championship alum Carlos Ruiz will be in the lineup for the first regular-season game at Citizens Bank Park in 2016.

The 37-year-old Ruiz was also in the lineup in Monday’s opener in Cincinnati.

“I wanted to make sure that Chooch started Opening Day; same thing with Ryan,” Mackanin said. “And the we'll just go from there. I'd like them to start if possible, we'll look at what we have, on Opening Day at home and I'll try to do that for sentimental reasons.”

Moving beyond the two ceremonial days on the schedule, Cameron Rupp is expected to be the regular catcher wth Ruiz serving in a backup role. This doesn’t exactly qualifying as breaking news: the now-27-year-old Rupp started 35 of the Phillies final 53 games last season.