Phillies’ Nick Castellanos, Johan Rojas are navigating the highs and lows of April baseball

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CINCINNATI — Another 0-for-4 night complete, Nick Castellanos removed his helmet Tuesday night and handed it to Philadelphia Phillies first-base coach Paco Figueroa. Castellanos peeled off his batting gloves and sauntered toward his place in right field. He does not show emotion as he did when he was younger. He takes pride in not overreacting to the good and bad, so it was telling when he bellyflopped into third base over the weekend with a huge smile.

Maybe — finally — his first extra-base hit was the start of something. But he went hitless the day after. He collected two singles on the first night here at Great American Ball Park. On Tuesday, as the Phillies’ seven-game winning streak ended in an 8-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, his season line dropped to .184/.245/.207. Castellanos’ .452 OPS ranks 183rd out of 186 qualified hitters.

He’s had better moments. He’s had worse.

“I know that last year I was pretty much worthless in the month of July,” Castellanos said. “You know? I’ve gone through stretches where I’m out of whack. All of a sudden it clicks. Everybody’s like, ‘Holy s—. What did you figure out?’ Nothing. It’s just baseball. The highs and lows.”

Johan Rojas knows. The 23-year-old outfielder had five hits in his first 31 at-bats. He sat for two straight days — April 11-12 — and he is hitting .379/.424/.483 in 32 plate appearances since. All of a sudden, it clicked — thanks to Trea Turner suggesting a few tweaks.

“It’s an incredible feeling because we’re surrounded by star players,” Rojas said through a team interpreter. “And for a star player such as Trea Turner to take his time to talk to me and help me, I feel really grateful for that.”

Everything is amplified in April; both Castellanos and Rojas can feel that. They are not the same — one is paid $20 million per year to provide right-handed pop and the other bats ninth because he is here to roam center field. Rojas slammed into the wall while making a terrific catch Tuesday night and hurt his right leg. He stayed down for a few minutes but did not leave the game. He worked a walk, beat out an infield single — the little things the Phillies hope he’ll contribute.

The Phillies will not sit Castellanos like they did Rojas. “You know, just keep going,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He’ll find it.” Castellanos wants to play all 162 games. The team is willing to defer to the right fielder — within reason — because it knows not to disrupt certain ideas that enter Castellanos’ head. The Phillies have not reached an uncomfortable territory with Castellanos; it would take weeks more of no production to prompt those discussions.

“It gives me confidence in myself to know that he has confidence in me to get out of it,” Castellanos said. “Honestly, that’s all I can ask for — to have the chance to go out and play. Know that doing the right thing and playing the game the right way, the tides will turn. Just like it always has.”

Castellanos had a .403 OPS in 100 at-bats from July 4 to Aug. 2 last season. He followed it with a productive month, then he spiraled again and Thomson bumped him to eighth in the batting order. He occupied both extremes last postseason. The Phillies would prefer someone who is not as streaky. So would Castellanos. Does it drive him crazy?

“Of course it does,” Castellanos said.

That isn’t going to change. Thomson has decided he will ride the lows to catch the highs.

“Now it’s just finding that rhythm,” Castellanos said. “A couple hits to fall. You get some happy-go-lucky energy and baseball becomes a game again instead of something that you’re just trying so hard to figure out.”

Is that what it feels like right now?

“In the beginning, yeah,” Castellanos said. “That’s ups and downs that I’ve had. It’s like a puzzle you’re continuously trying. ‘How am I going to get out of this? How am I going to get out of this?’ It could be an ass-out flare or whatever. Just something to get the juices going. Then, all of a sudden, next thing you know you’re rolling.”

Rojas has two more extra-base hits than Castellanos so far, which is not something the Phillies ever would have expected. Hitting coach Kevin Long implemented significant changes to Rojas’ swing and, at times, Rojas’ movement was disconnected. His legs weren’t moving with his upper half. The Phillies worried that Rojas was overthinking the mechanical adjustments.

Turner could relate. He saw Rojas in the batting cage and offered unsolicited advice. Rotate the legs, then follow with the swing. It’s all one motion when right, but they could exaggerate it in the cage. These were principles Long had preached.

Rojas just needed to hear it like this.

“It’s something that I’ve been working on,” Rojas said. “And the way that (Turner) explained it, it was so good that I understood right away what he wanted to see.”

Turner went further. He showed Rojas videos of other hitters with similar movements. “He also set himself as an example last year when he was struggling,” Rojas said. “He showed that that was one of the reasons why he was struggling at the plate, as well.” It can mean more when it comes from a teammate instead of a coach.

It’s the smallest things. Castellanos is content with his swing. He thinks it is more consistent.

“Everything’s harder without results, man,” Castellanos said. “Even bleeders that find their holes — and you’re helping the team. You’re on base. Results make everything easier.”

Castellanos was in a worse mood earlier this month. Maybe he knows something now. Maybe it’s misplaced optimism. Regardless, he has dug a huge hole.

“But,” Castellanos said, “I’m happy with my process right now.”

(Photo of Nick Castellanos: Katie Stratman / USA Today)

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