WASHINGTON — Practice made Maikel Franco perfect, at least for a day.
Franco didn't play in the series opener here Friday night, a notable omission considering fellow third baseman J.P. Crawford is out with a broken hand and rookie utilityman Jesmuel Valentin had made only three previous starts. But the Phillies preferred to keep Franco on the bench and in the batting cage in their latest — and perhaps last — appeal to him to hit the ball in the air more frequently.
"When you're not playing," manager Gabe Kapler said, "you have a chance to work on your craft."
Franco got the message. Back in the lineup Saturday, he went 4-for-4 and scored the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of a 5-3 victory over the Washington Nationals by chugging home from third base on Valentin's medium-depth fly ball to right field and sliding safely under catcher Spencer Kieboom's tag.
"That was just a tremendous all-around baseball game for Maikey Franco," Kapler said. "He brought so much energy to today's game."
Indeed, Franco played a solid third base, scored twice on aggressive sends by third-base coach Dusty Wathan and earned kudos from Kapler for a hard slide into second. The most encouraging sign, though, were the four hits, which matched Franco's total from his previous 28 at-bats. It also was Franco's first four-hit game since last July 14.
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And now, the question becomes whether this will set Franco on course to fulfill his potential as the Phillies' long-term third baseman or serve as just another tease en route to ultimately displacing him when Crawford returns from a broken hand or general manager Matt Klentak gets around to trading for Adrian Beltre, signing Manny Machado or acquiring someone else.
The Phillies can wait a while longer before deriving an answer. They've won three games in a row and nine of their last 12. They've also won four consecutive series for the first time since May 5-18, 2016. And with a victory in their first appearance on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball since April 21, 2013, they can sweep their first series at Nationals Park since April 26-28, 2016.
Don't look now, but the Phillies are 1 1/2 games ahead of the swooning Nationals, who have dropped nine of their last 12 games. They're also 1 1/2 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves, who lost Saturday to the Baltimore Orioles.
"Yeah, but I don't think the team has reached its full potential yet," lefty reliever Adam Morgan said. "When everybody starts clicking on all cylinders, I can't wait."
Just imagine if Franco, for example, starts hitting.
Franco used his idle time Friday to take extra swings with hitting coaches John Mallee and Pedro Guerrero. For months, they have tried everything to get one of the most extreme ground ball hitters in the majors to drive the ball on a line or in the air.
It's a matter of changing Franco's swing path, and it isn't a quick fix. While Franco went through a hot streak in early May, his latest cold spell has persisted for far longer. In his last 32 games entering Saturday, he was 17-for-95 (.179) with only three extra-base hits and an impossibly low .253 slugging percentage.
"I've been working on just trying to eliminate the ground ball and be able to hit more line drives," Franco said. "When I'm not in the lineup, I'm just trying to just take extra batting practice, extra hitting because I know it's not going to be right away. I have to understand the process, and I've been working on it a lot."
Said Kapler: "I think it's just a healthy reminder that he's 25. There are going to be ebbs and flows. There are going to be ups and downs. We stay resilient as a support system. He has to stay resilient as an athlete."
Clearly, though, Franco is on the clock. The Phillies are winning. The trade deadline is less than six weeks away.
If this is the start of something for Franco, it won't only help keep the Phillies in contention until the end of the season. It will save them from having to make a move to further boost their chances.