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Nava leads Phillies into series finale against Pirates

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Phillies have found a spark at the top of the lineup -- at least for the time being.

Veteran outfielder Daniel Nava got his shot late last month to set the tone for the offense, and the career .264 hitter is responding.

His success at the plate continued Wednesday. Nava went 3-for-4 with a walk to raise his season average to .313 -- not bad for a spring training non-roster invitee who only hit .223 in 130 at-bats last year between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals.

Nava will look to help the Phillies earn a split of a four-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday evening.

"It was a very nice surprise to see what Nava's capable of doing, not only at the plate, but he's a better defensive player than I thought he would be," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said after Philadelphia's 5-2 loss to the Pirates on Wednesday. "He's just been an asset to us."

For the season, Phillies leadoff hitters are batting .258 with a .305 on-base percentage. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez is hitting .277 from that spot, but he has been on the disabled list since June with an oblique injury.

Nava, who hit leadoff just once earlier in the season, appeared back at the top of the lineup on June 26, taking over after rookie Cameron Perkins spent a few games in the slot. He went 2-for-3 that night and has stuck there, starting eight of the Phillies' last nine games as their leadoff hitter.

After his successful game Wednesday, he is batting .480 (12-for-25) since moving into the leadoff spot full time.

With Hernandez originally expected to miss up to six weeks, Nava's presence in the leadoff spot will be necessary for at least a little while longer. After that, his future is uncertain, both in terms of lineup spot and franchise. If he continues swinging the bat well, Nava could be a trade piece as the July 31 deadline approaches.

"I've been in situations where you don't know what's going to happen, whether it's this or such as spring training, making the team," he said. "Those things are so far outside of my control, the more I think on those things, the worse it is for me."

The Phillies' Thursday night starter, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (5-5, 4.48 ERA), has had success against the Pirates in his career, going 3-1 with a 2.42 ERA in four appearances, all starts. In one previous start against the Pirates this year, he held them to two hits and two runs (one earned) in six innings on May 19.

At that point, Hellickson was 5-1 with a 3.44 ERA. After that came a rough stretch in which he went 0-4 with a 7.57 ERA over five starts.

Though Hellickson hasn't had a decision in each of his last three starts since that slum, he has generally pitched well, giving up six runs (all earned) in 19 1/3 innings (2.79 ERA) during that span. His last time out, he went 6 1/3 innings in a no-decision against the New York Mets, giving up seven hits and four runs.

With the trade deadline a few weeks away, how well Hellickson pitches in his next few starts could determine what the Phillies could get for the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, who signed a one-year deal for $17.2 million before this season.

"That's not on my mind," Hellickson told MLB.com on June 20 about getting traded. "Getting on a nice little run, a nice little groove, is definitely on my mind."

Pirates starter Chad Kuhl (2-6, 5.26 ERA) is also coming off a strong start in a no-decision. He gave up two hits and one run in six innings against the San Francisco Giants on Saturday.

"Just trying to attack," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Just getting back to what I do best, trying to get guys (to hit it) on the ground and (have) good fastball command -- in, out, being able to go in to lefties."

In two previous starts against the Phillies, Kuhl is 2-2 with a 1.64 ERA, his best mark against any team he has faced more than once.

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