SARGE COULDN'T hold back. God bless him, he seldom can.
Gary Matthews has offered third baseman Maikel Franco hitting advice over the past few weeks, mostly in private. Matthews went public Sunday afternoon.
As part of the Phillies' weekend tribute to the 1980s, Matthews, who played in Philadelphia from 1981-83, went to third base between the third and fourth innings to ceremoniously switch out the bases. This was just minutes after Franco had weakly grounded out to first base on a first-pitch breaking ball that spun away from him as if he were contagious. This was precisely sort of pitch that has bedeviled Franco for two seasons, the sort of pitch Matthews has urged Franco to ignore.
Sunday, in front of more than 21,000 fans, Franco couldn't ignore Matthews.
First, Matthews barked his name: "Maik!" Franco's head snapped to the right.
Having caught Franco's attention, Matthews asked him what he was doing swinging at exactly the sort of pitch everyone from hitting coach Matt Stairs to manager Pete Mackanin to lunch room ice-cream scooper Frank Mazzuca knows he shouldn't swing at. Franco almost never makes good contact with breaking pitches thrown on the outside part of the plate, especially below his knees. And he should never, ever swing at an offspeed pitch on the outside part of the plate when it's the first pitch of an at-bat with the bases empty.
But that's what he did.
Fans might have noticed during the base-changing ceremony that Matthews waved with the back of his right hand as he spoke to Franco, indicating that the pitch had been thrown away from Franco. They might have noticed Sarge raising both hands, upturned, and they might have heard him ask, "Why are you swinging at a first-pitch breaking ball?"
They might have seen Franco shrug and heard him reply, "Yeah. I know."
They might have seen Franco drop his head slightly. They might have seen first baseman Tommy Joseph prepare to throw Franco a warmup grounder and then stop, because Franco wasn't looking. Nattily hatted as usual - Sarge was wearing his trademark fedora before Justin Timberlake got his mouse ears - had Franco's attention.
Sarge was telling Franco to make the pitcher prove he could throw those sliders and curveballs for strikes before swinging at one.
"Swing at fastballs, until you get two strikes on you. Work the count," Sarge said, rolling his hands one over the other as illustration. "No first-pitch breaking balls!"
That's sound coaching. Franco has heard it before, a lot, from the men who are paid to coach him. He is key to their success.
The Phillies have touted Franco as a cornerstone player for two seasons. However, the opposition has discovered he cannot resist sinkers, sliders and curveballs thrown on the outer half of the plate - or, sometimes, even beyond. Charts on mlb.com demonstrate how impotent his powerful swing becomes when he lunges at those particular pitches. Franco said last month he sometimes doesn't recognize when a pitch with break sharply away from him.
Sarge says it's OK to jump on early junk as long as that's your plan when you dig in.
"You don't want to be swinging at a first-pitch breaking ball unless you're sitting on it. That's OK," Sarge said.
It's OK once in a while.
"We want to swing at fastballs until the cows come home," Sarge said. "That's just the way you hit."
Matthews knows hitting. He hit .281 for four teams in his 16-year career and he was an especially proficient young hitter: .290 with 44 homers and a .370 on-base percentage through his first four seasons, the last of which he was 24.
Franco, 24, is at a similar stage in his career but he has much more power potential. He is hitting just .248 with 52 homers and a .302 on-base percentage, and he's hitting .217 this season at the All-Star break.
Matthews last played in 1987, but hitting is a timeless craft. As a Phillies broadcaster and now as an ambassador for the team, Matthews, 67, has long had access to Franco. They are friendly. As such, Sarge has occasionally offered Franco advice.
"In fact, we've been talking about it the past couple of days," Matthews said. "I asked, him, 'Why are you letting guys get you out? You're better than that. Give me more concentration. Stay in the ballgame.' "
Franco stayed in the ballgame Sunday. In his next at-bat, he took a changeup for ball one, took a sinker for a strike, fought off a changeup foul up the first base line, spat on two weak curveballs, then drilled a 3-2 changeup to leftfield, a line-drive out.
Franco's final plate appearance followed back-to-back homers, so the first pitch he saw was high and tight. He then took a good slider for a strike; pulled off another good slider for strike two; then lofted another good slider weakly to second base in the air.
He essentially did what Sarge said: waited for the pitcher to prove he could throw the soft stuff for a strike.
Maybe Sarge should give him public lessons every game.