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Rest, Manuel spark red-hot Maikel Franco

MINNEAPOLIS – No one thought it was going to come easy for Phillies prospect Maikel Franco right out of the gate this season.

Yes, he had a huge season in 2013 -- .320/31/103 -- but he was making the jump to Triple A after less than 300 plate appearances above the Single A level and he was still just 21 years old.

Conventional wisdom suggested the young third baseman from the Dominican Republic would take his lumps for a while and he did. He was hitting just .209 after an 0-for-5 performance on June 29. That’s when Dave Brundage and Sal Rende, the manager and hitting coach, respectively, for the Phillies’ Triple A Lehigh Valley club, suggested that Franco take a couple days off.

“They told me to just watch the game,” Franco said at Major League Baseball’s Futures Game on Sunday. “Relax. Relax your mind. It was good for me.”

Sure was.

Franco went 4 for 4 his first day back in the lineup and has been on a tear since.

He entered his second straight trip to the Futures Game, the Who’s Who event of elite baseball prospects, hitting .390 with a 1.126 OPS over a nine-game stretch. In that span, he had six doubles, three triples, one home run and 11 RBIs.

That’s the thunder Phillies officials came to expect last season.

“It was a little bit harder because you're facing really good pitchers,” Franco said of the jump to Triple A. “Some of those pitchers have played four years in the big leagues and come down here. For me, it’s a little bit harder.

“But everything is going good right now. I’m enjoying the games.”

Coming out of spring training, Phillies officials wanted Franco to work on shortening his stroke and using the middle of the diamond. One scout who has watched Franco this season said it was clear Franco was working on those adjustments in batting practice but he was inconsistent in taking them into games.

Lately, Franco’s swing has been coming around and that has led to the one thing all good hitters have …

“I’m feeling confident in my game,” he said.

Franco spoke glowingly about the tutoring he has received from Rende.

“He’s a good hitting coach,” Franco said.

Franco also revealed that his hot streak coincided with a visit from Charlie Manuel, the former Phillies manager who has gone back to his roots, quietly working with young hitting prospects.

“I enjoyed it,” Franco said. “Charlie was there for four days.”

Franco said Manuel made some suggestions on his stride and the positioning of his hands. Manuel also went to work on the area between Franco’s ears.

“He told me I was a good hitter and don’t feel pressure,” Franco said. “He told me to stay positive. It was good.”

Franco flied out to center field twice in Sunday’s Futures Game. His World team lost to the U.S. team, 3-2.

Now he returns to Lehigh Valley, looking to keep his hot streak alive. He hopes to produce well enough (and play well enough at third base) to get a look in Philadelphia in September. The Phillies could be deep into a retooling effort by then, so it might make some sense to let Franco get a taste of the majors -- provided he has a strong finish to his minor-league season.

Franco can also play first base. It is unclear which position he will play in the majors. If the Phillies could somehow move Ryan Howard after this season -- they’d have to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that would remain on his contract to make that happen -- Franco could be in play at first base next season. It’s also possible he would stay at third. Team officials have talked about the possibility of Cody Asche playing left field for a couple of years.

These are questions that will be answered down the road. For now, Franco just needs to keep playing and swinging the bat as well as he has recently.

“I would love to come up in September, why not?” Franco said. “That’s where I want to be. Hopefully I will be ready.

“My plan is to stay true, keep working hard, and have fun. We'll see what happens.”