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ATL@PHI: Asche strong on defense, hits winning homer

PHILADELPHIA -- Nobody knows what the Phillies have planned in the offseason, but at this moment Cody Asche must be considered the heavy favorite to be their Opening Day third baseman in 2014.

He came up big Friday in a 2-1 victory over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. He stroked a two-run home run to right-center field against left-hander Mike Minor in the seventh inning to give the the Phillies the lead and made a splendid barehanded defensive play in the ninth to preserve the win.

"That's not really something I'm thinking about right now," said Asche, when asked if it matters going into Spring Training if he knows he has the job locked up or if he must compete for it. "I'm up here just trying to be part of a winning team, and just doing my part every single day to make sure we come out on top on a daily basis. I think that's just the way I'm approaching the rest of the year, and that's the way I'm going to approach everything."

But consider for a moment he has hit .333 (28-for-84) with six doubles, one triple, four home runs and 18 RBIs since he started his career 1-for-17, he has played fine defense and he has impressed teammates, coaches and folks in the front office with his demeanor and work ethic.

Everybody seems to have something good to say about the guy.

"I think early you could tell he was a little nervous, just unsure and kind of feeling it out," said Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee, who allowed four hits, one run and struck out 10 in eight innings to improve to 12-6 with a 3.01 ERA. "Of late you can sense he's gotten more comfortable and his skills are showing. Defensively, he's made some unbelievable plays and he's gotten some big hits for us. I expect him to be a huge part of our team in the future."

"He puts a lot into it," Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg said of Asche. "He's a baseball player. He's one of the first guys here. He learns from the guys that are here, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. They talk the game in the dugout [with] positioning. They move him a little bit and keep him heads-up on certain plays. But he's around some of the best. He's a student of the game."

Asche also has hit .438 (7-for-16) with one double, one home runs and four RBIs against left-handers this season.

It is a small sample size, but the Phillies are seeking someone to consistently hit left-handed pitching. They entered the night hitting .227 against left-handers, which ranked last in baseball.

Struggles against lefties could be an issue again next season. Philadelphia could have five left-handed hitters in its 2014 Opening Day lineup: first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, left fielder Domonic Brown, center fielder Ben Revere and Asche.

Howard's .604 OPS against left-handers from 2011-13 is 243rd out of 260 qualifying hitters in baseball. Utley's .662 OPS is 206th.

So it was not a surprise the Phillies had just two hits through six innings against Minor until Darin Ruf hit a two-out single to left field and Asche ripped a first-pitch fastball for the homer.

"I had seen basically everything he had in his first two at-bats, so I was looking for something up in the zone to attack, whether a slider, curveball, fastball, just something up to get my barrel on and drive in a run," Asche said. "I definitely thought he didn't want to fall behind in that situation. My first two at-bats, he threw some good pitches first pitch."

It was Minor's only mistake of the night. Lee made just one, the homer he allowed to Andrelton Simmons in the third.

"It came down to one swing of the bat," Lee said.

The crop of free-agent third baseman this offseason is weak, which puts Asche in a good spot. Many have wondered about Maikel Franco, who earned the Phillies' Minor League Player of the Year honors. While Franco is a legitimate talent, it is hard to picture Franco pushing Asche if Asche finishes the season strong here.

Franco, after all, has only played 69 games above Class A, while Asche could have more than 50 in the big leagues by the end of the season.

"He's moved up the ladder quickly and each time he's moved up, he's had some adjustment times and I think that's the case here," Sandberg said. "He was here a couple of weeks and he started finding his stroke when he relaxed and he let his natural abilities take over. He works very hard at the game -- all parts of the game -- and he's a baseball player."

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