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Maikel Franco's grand slam propels Phillies past Marlins

He had three hits as the Phils won their fifth straight. Vince Velasquez pitched into the seventh inning.

This 162-game adventure is a continued hunt for pebbles. The Phillies - even at 10-9 with a positive run differential and a five-game winning streak after their latest triumph, a 7-4 win Wednesday over Miami - are not viewed as contenders. They want these games to separate who belongs and who does not. They will be loyal to their youngest players, especially during prolonged slumps, to search for slivers of evolution.

That is what Maikel Franco and Vince Velasquez provided in the season's 19th game. Velasquez, with a restored confidence and approach, pitched into the seventh inning. Franco pulverized three Marlins pitches for three hits; the loudest connection was a third-inning grand slam.

Both 24-year-olds are potential cornerstones for the Phillies. Both did not start the season well. Both have applied adjustments.

That is how the Phillies can measure progress in 2017.

"It's a long season," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Start with Franco, who raised his batting average by 32 points and OPS by 88 points in one night. He worked a 3-1 count to start the second inning against Marlins lefthander Wei-Yin Chen. He stroked a single to right-center. He was stranded on third base. But that swing encouraged him.

"That's what I've been working on in batting practice," Franco said. "I just try to hit the ball to the middle and to the other side. That's the side of the plate they want to pitch me. That's the adjustment I have to make. Try to see the ball and make good contact."

An inning later, he delivered the timely hit his teammates could not muster. Three singles loaded the bases. Franco fell behind 0-2 to Chen. He took two off-speed pitches and fouled another. Then, Chen countered with a 92-mph fastball. Franco did not miss it.

"I was thinking about a fastball because I know he likes to throw fastballs inside a lot," Franco said. "After three breaking balls, I thought to myself, 'Be ready for the fastball.' He threw me a fastball right there and I put good contact on it."

Franco has crushed two grand slams in the first 19 games. The last Phillies hitter with three grand slams in a season was Ryan Howard in 2009. Franco was tormented by bad luck in the first two weeks of the season. He is seventh on the team in strikeouts, a sign that he has adopted a more disciplined approach. The results are beginning to show.

Same for Velasquez, who has supplied two quality starts after two bad ones. Velasquez threw 68 of his 97 pitches for strikes. He fired first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 26 batters he faced.

He was efficient. Just one of his six innings required more than 16 pitches to complete. He traded high strikeout totals for ground-ball outs. The Marlins hit some balls hard. Velasquez made important pitches when he needed them.

"He's trying to pitch to more contact and not make perfect pitches and strike everybody out," Mackanin said. "Once he puts it all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him. He'll know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

He looked like a big-league starter who could escape trouble and adjust to skilled hitters. The vaunted middle of Miami's lineup - Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, and Marcell Ozuna - was 0 for 8 with a walk against Velasquez.

The first inning showcased some maturation. Dee Gordon slashed the first pitch Velasquez threw, a get-me-over fastball at 90 mph, for a triple. Velasquez did not allow the inning to spiral. He struck out Martin Prado, induced a run-scoring groundout from Yelich and escaped with a deft catch in center by Odubel Herrera on a well-struck Stanton fly.

"If I'm going to go deep in game, I have to get ahead as soon as possible," Velasquez said. "Whatever it may be - change-up, curveball, slider, whatever - I have to attack."

Six innings later, after Mackanin took the ball from his brazen pitcher, the Citizens Bank Park fans offered tepid applause for a solid performance. That, in 2017, is what resembles progress.