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Kapler eyes balance for Crawford vs. lefties

MLB.com @ToddZolecki

ATLANTA -- Phillies manager Gabe Kapler made an interesting decision in the eighth inning of Monday night's 2-1 loss to the Braves at SunTrust Park.

He could have had J.P. Crawford face Braves left-hander A.J. Minter with runners on first and second and one out in a one-run game. Crawford had seven hits in his previous 14 at-bats, including two doubles and two home runs. He had been seeing the baseball well and hitting the ball hard. But Crawford also had just two hits in 27 career at-bats against lefties. Kapler had switch-hitter Pedro Florimon face Minter instead. 

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ATLANTA -- Phillies manager Gabe Kapler made an interesting decision in the eighth inning of Monday night's 2-1 loss to the Braves at SunTrust Park.

He could have had J.P. Crawford face Braves left-hander A.J. Minter with runners on first and second and one out in a one-run game. Crawford had seven hits in his previous 14 at-bats, including two doubles and two home runs. He had been seeing the baseball well and hitting the ball hard. But Crawford also had just two hits in 27 career at-bats against lefties. Kapler had switch-hitter Pedro Florimon face Minter instead. 

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Florimon, who has a .541 OPS in 224 career plate appearances against lefties, struck out swinging.

"If he wants to take me out that's fine," Crawford said before Tuesday night's game against the Braves. "I'm going to respect his decision. He's the manager. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing right now and just focus on playing."

Kapler is trying to find a balance with Crawford. He needs to play him against left-handers so he learns to hit them, but he also wants those opportunities to come at the right time to maintain Crawford's confidence and give the Phillies the best chance to win.

Kapler is not the first manager to walk that line with a young left-handed hitter. Former Phillies manager Larry Bowa eased Chase Utley into plate appearances against lefties early in his career. Utley started 36 games as a rookie in 2003. He started just twice against lefties. He started 57 games in '04, just seven times against lefties.

"J.P. is going to face a lot of left-handed pitching," Kapler said. "At this point, it is my obligation to put our players in the best possible position to succeed. And I actually think J.P. is very aware. He understands that there are ways that we can match him up really effectively to continue the progress that he's made with his swing and his approach.

"He knows that we're protecting him all the time. All of our players know -- I believe strongly -- that we're protecting them and putting them in the best possible positions to succeed."

Crawford has struggled against lefties in the Minor Leagues. He posted a .797 OPS in 350 at-bats last season against righties, but a .639 OPS in 124 plate appearances against lefties with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He had a .706 OPS in 376 plate appearances against right-handers in 2016, but a .652 OPS in 175 plate appearances against lefties.

"He sees pitches, he works good at-bats," Kapler said. "This is very early in the season, so maybe some of those trends haven't shown up completely. I saw him play in high school. That has always been there -- his ability to look over a baseball and decide early what a strike is and what a ball is. That plays well against lefties and righties."

Hunter inches closer to return
• Right-hander Tommy Hunter (strained right hamstring) made a rehab appearance Tuesday with Class A Advanced Clearwater, throwing 1 1/3 scoreless frames while striking out one batter and walking one. Kapler said Hunter could pitch in one or two more rehab Minor League rehab games before he rejoins the team.

• Kapler said right-hander Jerad Eickhoff (strained right lat) threw a successful bullpen session Tuesday.

Alfaro's strikeouts pile up
Kapler has been quick to praise rookie catcher Jorge Alfaro's improvements behind the plate, particularly with his pitch framing. But after striking out once in three at-bats Monday, Alfaro has struck out 17 times in 39 plate appearances.

Alfaro's strikeout rate (43.6 percent) ranks ninth out of 277 hitters with 30 or more plate appearances.

"It's not a strikeout rate that makes me think, 'Oh, he's going to strike out at that rate going forward,'" Kapler said. "We saw a lot of positive signs with Alfie offensively in Spring Training and we've seen flashes of it in the regular season, most notably the power. … I think there's a little bit of a mentality that he's going to continue to work on. And that is, "I'm going to put this ball in play under any circumstance.'"

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Philadelphia Phillies, J.P. Crawford