Phillies, Braves still stuck at bottom of NL East
PHILADELPHIA -- The National League East bottom-feeders from 2016 haven't really done much in the first 2 1/2 weeks of 2017 to prove they won't be there again.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves open a three-game set at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night with identical 6-9 records, tied for last in the division.
Jeremy Hellickson (2-0, 1.59 ERA) takes the hill for the Phillies against the ageless Bartolo Colon (1-1, 4.24).
Philadelphia returns home after a six-game trip to face the Washington Nationals and New York Mets. The Phillies came away with a 3-3 record following a 6-4 win in Queens on Thursday night.
The Braves, who finished a seven-game homestand Thursday, were swept in a three-game series by the Nationals after winning five consecutive games. They fell 3-2 Thursday night.
Each team has had problems from 2016 surface in their slow starts this year. Both have had trouble scoring runs at times and have dealt with some inconsistencies from their pitching staffs.
For the Phillies, the struggles have come mostly from the bullpen. On Thursday night, the Phillies trotted out their third closer of the young season.
After Jeanmar Gomez's short leash was pulled in favor of Joaquin Benoit last weekend, Benoit notched a save Saturday before blowing one Sunday. On Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin sent Benoit out for the eighth inning and opted to give Hector Neris, one of the best relievers in baseball last year, the save opportunity. Neris retired the Mets in order.
At the plate, third baseman Maikel Franco hadn't yet shown the benefits of the Phillies getting protection for him by signing Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Franco snapped an 0-for-22 skid Thursday with a double and a home run.
His lack of success has been more of the bad-luck variety, as he owns one of the lowest batting averages on balls in play in the major leagues.
"That's why I'm still confident," Franco said before the game Thursday, according to the Inquirer. "You worry about stuff you can control."
The Phillies, of course, need their cleanup hitter hitting well to have any sustained success.
On paper, they have the upper hand in the pitching matchups against Atlanta this weekend. All three Braves probable starters have ERAs above 4.00, while all three Phillies starters are under that mark.
The Braves got a little help Thursday when Matt Kemp (hamstring) was activated from the 10-day disabled list, though he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the series finale against Washington.
Atlanta also recalled right-hander Aaron Blair from Triple-A Gwinnett to serve as a temporary long reliever after Josh Collmenter pitched three innings in a 14-4 loss Wednesday. Both Johan Camargo and Luke Jackson were optioned to Gwinnett.
Braves manager Brian Snitker gave struggling shortstop Dansby Swanson (.131 batting average) a day off Thursday after suggesting earlier in the week he wouldn't move him down the lineup.
"You can have all the plans you want for guys, but you just go day to day and trust your gut," Snitker said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I think this will be good for him."
Expect Swanson to be back at shortstop Friday night in Philadelphia.
While Swanson has struggled, first baseman Freddie Freeman is off to a fast start (.407 average, six homers). So was Kemp before his hamstring injury. The Atlanta offense should be much better than last year's version, but questions remain with the pitching staff.
Colon has a chance to start the staff trending in a positive direction Friday. He is 11-5 with a 3.43 ERA in 19 career starts against the Phillies.
Neiburg owns an identical 3.43 ERA in his four career starts vs. the Braves.
Updated April 21, 2017