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Franco helps Phils snap Nats' win streak

Hoskins belted a two-run homer; Velasquez allowed one hit in five innings
MLB.com @ToddZolecki

WASHINGTON -- The early returns on Maikel Franco's most important season with the Phillies are encouraging.

He played a critical role in Saturday evening's 3-1 victory over the Nationals at Nationals Park. He not only singled to score an insurance run in the top of the sixth, he turned an important inning-ending double play in the bottom half of the inning. Franco lately is playing like the middle-of-the-lineup player the Phillies believed he could be just a few years ago.

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WASHINGTON -- The early returns on Maikel Franco's most important season with the Phillies are encouraging.

He played a critical role in Saturday evening's 3-1 victory over the Nationals at Nationals Park. He not only singled to score an insurance run in the top of the sixth, he turned an important inning-ending double play in the bottom half of the inning. Franco lately is playing like the middle-of-the-lineup player the Phillies believed he could be just a few years ago.

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"I'm feeling really good," Franco said. "I'm going out there with this energy and trying to be aggressive."

Everybody in the world knows this is a make-or-break season for Franco. Since posting a promising .840 OPS in 335 plate appearances as a rookie in 2015, his production has dropped each of the previous two seasons. He posted a .733 OPS in 2016 and a .690 OPS last season, putting him in position to produce or be cast aside.

Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson have been mentioned as potential replacements.

But Franco is hitting .271 with five doubles, one triple, five home runs, 25 RBIs and an .805 OPS though his first 27 games. And that is after he hit just .214 with a .699 OPS in 12 games through April 16.

Franco is hitting .315 with four doubles, three home runs, 10 RBIs and an .889 OPS in 15 games since.

How is he doing it?

He has made significant mechanical adjustments at the plate. Most noticeably, he has closed his stance. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler mentioned recently that Franco also has improved his "spine angle." Franco's shoulders point more skyward as he swings, which helps him make better contact with the ball.

Video: PHI@WSH: Franco discusses the win over the Nationals

He also is chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone and doing more damage when he swings. He swung at 37.5 pitches out of the strike zone through April 16. He has chased just 26.5 percent of those pitches since April 17.

"I know they've made an adjustment on me with pitches down and away," Franco said. "I'm just trying to just leave it and wait for the pitch that I want. The more I leave those pitches down and away, I know they're going to give me something to hit."

He made quality contact on just 10.1 percent of his swings through April 16, which was one of the lowest marks in baseball. That number has skyrocketed to 26.3 percent since April 17, which is the best mark in baseball among 229 hitters that have 75 or more swings in that span.

Video: PHI@WSH: Franco makes a running catch in the 1st

"He's swinging at more strikes," Rhys Hoskins said. "He's been really, really aggressive in the zone. When he is giving a pass at the ball he's on time. I think if he stays in the zone he can be as dangerous as anybody."

The benefits are obvious.

"It gives us another threat," Kapler said. "For a while there it was looking like, hey, you really want to score your runs in the first four hitters of your lineup. Now it's deeper with Stretch [Aaron Altherr] swinging the bat really well and Maikey swinging it really well."

"It's a tougher out all the way down a lineup and that just wears on a pitcher," Hoskins said.

Franco just needs to keep it up.

"I'm not taking it for granted," he said.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Vince Velasquez allowed one hit, one run, four walks and struck out four in five innings. He threw 92 pitches to force Kapler to call to the bullpen. Velasquez had struggled in each of his past two starts, allowing 10 earned runs in 8 2/3 innings. He considered this a step back in the right direction.

Video: PHI@WSH: Velasquez punches out Harper in the 1st

"Right from the get-go I felt like I was in control all the way," Velasquez said. "I keep mentioning slowing the game down and right off the bat it's how I felt. Those walks happen, I should do a better job of putting them away, the fastball was pretty alive today, it was working. Sometimes you've got to just throw it over the middle and see what happens."

The Phillies' bullpen threw four scoreless innings to preserve the win. Tommy Hunter struck out Bryce Harper in an impressive 10-pitch at-bat in the seventh inning and Hector Neris closed the door with his sixth save of the year.

Video: PHI@WSH: Neris strikes out Difo to shut the door

SOUND SMART
Odubel Herrera walked in the third inning, extending his on-base streak to 34 games. It is the Phillies' longest on-base streak since Chase Utley's 35-game streak from June 23 to Aug. 3, 2006. Herrera also has reached base safely in his first 30 games this season. It is the Phillies' longest streak to start a season since at least 1900.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Pedro Florimon helped the Phillies turn a huge double play in the bottom of the ninth. After Trea Turner walked on four pitches to start the inning, he tried to steal second base. Turner did not notice that Matt Wieters popped out to second baseman Cesar Hernandez on the play. Florimon kept his glove on Turner as if he had the ball in his glove. By the time Turner realized what happened, Hernandez made a casual throw to first base to turn the double play.

"I tried to fake him to stay on the base," Florimon said. "That was something I could hold for a moment so Cesar could catch the ball and get a double play. I think he didn't know what was going on because he stood up and cleaned his jersey. I saw that he didn't know what was going on. So I got him."

Video: PHI@WSH: Florimon dekes Turner to turn DP in the 9th

Turner, however, said Florimon's deke had nothing to do with his baserunning gaffe.

"Usually I hear the ball off the bat, so a lot of times if I hear it I'll look up," Turner said. "I didn't hear it that time. I knew Florimon didn't have the ball, I just figured it was like a passed ball or something, that he was trying to get me to stay at second base. So by the time I realized, I looked up and saw Matt Wieters running down the first-base line. It kind of confused me. It happens. If I hear it, I think I look up and run back and everything is fine. I happened to not hear it."

HE SAID IT
"I thought I hit it better than the first one. That's baseball though, right?" -- Hoskins, on flying out to the warning track in left-center field with the bases loaded in the ninth inning

Hoskins hit a two-run homer in the first inning.

Video: PHI@WSH: Hoskins crushes a two-run homer in the 1st

UP NEXT
Phillies right-hander Jake Arrieta (3-1, 3.49 ERA) faces Nationals ace Max Scherzer (6-1, 1.79 ERA) in Sunday's 1:35 p.m. ET series finale at Nationals Park. Arrieta and Scherzer have accounted for the past three National League Cy Young Awards with Arrieta winning with the Cubs in 2015 and Scherzer winning each of the past two seasons with the Nationals.

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, Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins