The Philadelphia Phillies opened a series with the defending NL champion New York Mets yesterday afternoon.
I am sure we are all wishing it would somehow get easier for our boys in red pinstripes. The problem is that it instead gets more difficult. That is putting it mildly. The Cincinnati Reds are a team many believe will finish in the cellar of a strong National League Central, and the Phillies made them look like a World Series contender for three gloomy days.
In my first edition of this “Phillies Roadblock” series, I put the TBOH spotlight on the Reds’ Joey Votto. The star 1st baseman was held down for the most part, with only two hits in a dozen at-bats during that opening series. However, Votto did demonstrate his killer instinct in game one.
Jeremy Hellickson had kept Votto in check throughout the afternoon, striking him out three times and making him look bad with confused swings. As I highlighted, Votto struggles when pitchers are effectively locating fastballs on both sides of the plate.
Hellickson was able to do that all day, and caused Votto to take some ugly hacks. When the Phillies were in trouble during the disastrous eighth inning, James Russell made his Philadelphia debut against Votto. The lefty reliever threw a 2-2 fastball right down the middle, and Votto made him pay with a two-run single that gave the Reds a 4-2 lead.
Votto is the type of lefty who can hit lefty mistakes and he did just that. While the Phillies held him check for the most part, he still had a momentum changing swing, so I will give myself a win for the first part of this series. Hey, someone has to win something in our Phillies coverage, right?
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As the Phillies move on now to a much more difficult part of their road trip, there are plenty of factors against them. While the New York Mets pitching is absolutely tremendous, there remain pieces to their everyday lineup who pose a serious threat.
Neil Walker is entering his first season at Citi Field as one of the more respectable offensive 2nd baseman in the game, and we all know what Yoenis Cespedes is capable of doing. When David Wright is healthy, he stabilizes their lineup as much as any veteran in baseball. And I have a strong feeling I will be writing one of these about Travis d’Arnaud at some point this year, but that day will not be today.
When I look at the Mets from top to bottom, there is one player who terrifies me more than all of these veterans: young left fielder Michael Conforto. The 23-year old was selected 10th overall by the Mets in the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft out of Oregon State University where he was twice named Pac-12 Player of the Year. Conforto set a school single-season RBI record as a freshman with 76 in 58 games.
After being drafted, Conforto’s climb to the big leagues did not take long. He was up just a little over one year of being selected, and had very little difficulty adjusting to the big leagues.
In 56 games last season, Conforto had 174 at bats. In those opportunities amounting to approximately 1/3 of a season he drove nine home runs, hitting for a .270 average with an .841 OPS mark.
Mets’ manager Terry Collins only gave Conforto 14 at-bats against lefties, and the lefty swinger only had three hits in those at bats. However, Conforto was tremendous against right-handed pitching. He faces three righties this weekend from the Phillies rotation of Jerad Eickhoff, Vincent Velasquez, and Hellickson.
In the opener, Conforto was hit by an Eickhoff pitch in the bottom of the 2nd inning. He then went on to a 2-3 day, with a 6th inning RBI double off Eickhoff that put the Mets up 3-1, and a 7th inning two-run single off lefty reliever Russell that put the game out of reach at 6-1.
What do the Phillies have to do to make sure he does not impact this series even more over the next two games?
Conforto will take walks. He is unafraid to work counts and has a tremendously patient approach, and has taken a pair already in his first dozen 2016 plate appearances. In his brief minor league career, he posted an on-base percentage of .385 in a 133 games.
An approach like his allows Conforto to work counts in his favor in order to get pitches he can drive. Conforto’s power is going to continue to develop. He loves to extend his arms, and his swing tends to get long as a result.
The strategy for Phillies pitching should be simple: keep the ball hard-and-in on his hands. With a swing that gets long, ala Domonic Brown, fastballs with high velocity in on the hands are the ultimate Achilles heel.
The good news appeared to be that all three of the pitchers for the Phillies this weekend can throw the ball hard enough to tie up Conforto. Though Eickhoff had mixed results
The young Mets outfielder, packed with star potential, has a chance to be a thorn in the side of the Phillies for years to come. By following a solid game plan and delivering effective pitches, the club’s staff hopes to delay the beginnings of being poked by that thorn for a few more games.