On the wall of his office at the Phillies' spring training complex, Charlie Manuel has a quote from the late Billy Martin, his former manager with the Minnesota Twins. It reads, "It's not a light bulb. You can't turn it on and off."
That's what Manuel has tried to tell the Phillies all spring.
Built to defend their National League East crown and contend for a World Series title, the Phillies had lost seven of eight spring training games in mid-March when Manuel threatened to lecture his players on the importance of sharpening their play before the season opens. But before he could hold a team meeting, the Phillies began to play better.
Now, Manuel hopes it carries over into the season.
The Phillies, who clinched the NL East on the final day of last season after trailing the New York Mets by seven games with 17 to play, are anchored by their potent offense. Led by back-to-back NL MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and perennial MVP candidate Chase Utley, there's little question the Phillies will score enough runs to win games. They even replaced departed free agent Aaron Rowand's production by adding veteran outfielder Geoff Jenkins and Pedro Feliz to the lineup, and the bench became stronger when they signed outfielder So Taguchi.
But questions abound about the Phillies' pitching. Last season, they posted a 4.73 team ERA and made the playoffs with the highest ERA since the 1995 Colorado Rockies. They traded for closer Brad Lidge in November, a move that allowed them to shift Brett Myers back to the rotation. But they were unable to add additional pitching through trades or free agency, and they'll rely on 45-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer, 2007 rookie sensation Kyle Kendrick and free agent disappointment Adam Eaton in the back of the rotation.
The Phillies were plagued by injuries last season, and they've had health concerns this spring. Lidge underwent arthroscopic knee surgery February 25, and he'll open the season on the disabled list. However, the team hopes he'll be ready to return as soon as April 5. Eaton, diagnosed with a herniated disk in his lower back, appears to have gotten the problem under control, but there are always concerns when a player’s back is involved.
Manuel would like to see the Phillies get off to a better start. In the past three years, the Phillies have posted 10-14, 10-14 and 11-14 records in April, leaving them to climb back into the playoff race.
News and Notes:
- Tom Gordon insists his shoulder has felt strong this spring, but the 40-year-old setup man continues to pitch through a slight tear in his labrum. The Phillies will have to be judicious about how often they use Gordon, who missed two months last season with the shoulder problem. Gordon figures to be a vital piece of the Phillies' bullpen with new closer Brad Lidge and lefty setup man J.C. Romero.
- Adam Eaton allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings Friday to all but guarantee he will be the Phillies' number five starter. Eaton had been the leading candidate for the job despite posting a disappointing 6.29 ERA in 30 starts last season, but he missed nine days earlier this month after being diagnosed with a herniated disk in his lower back. In two starts since returning, he has allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings.
"I was hoping it would be like this, but the way I felt, there was potential for it to not be very good," Eaton said. "It's nice for me to be on the healthy side of things. It's nice to get those awkward-looking swings I used to get."
Manager Charlie Manuel has set Eaton as the fifth starter and says he believed that would be the case all along. "He's had it all along, really," Manuel said. "I mean, I haven't seen nobody take it away from him. That's how I see it. That outing (Friday) shows he could do it."
- Pedro Feliz had a stressful offseason. He fired his agent and wondered why he wasn't drawing more interest on the free agent market. But he signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Phillies in late January, and now, he's a vital part of a lineup that may be the best in the National League. Feliz, who turns 33 next month, has hit at least 20 home runs and collected at least 72 RBI in each of the past four seasons for the San Francisco Giants. Playing his home games in the bandbox of Citizens Bank Park and hitting lower in the Phillies' lineup than he did in the Giants' may help him increase those numbers. "He's a great short-term signing for them to fix their third base situation," said an AL scout who watched many of Feliz's games with the Giants last season. "I'd be shocked if he's bad. With all those guys with .400 on-base percentages batting in front of him, he could drive in a lot of runs."
- SS Jason Donald hit two three-run home runs in an Easter Sunday victory over the Blue Jays and sparked great praise from manager Charlie Manuel, who compared him to former Astros great Craig Biggio. Donald, 23, is slated to open the season at Double-A Reading. "Same makeup, talks like him, plays like him, everything," Manuel said of the Donald-Biggio similarities.
Said Donald, "I didn't know what he was saying the first time he called me Biggio. I just thought he didn't know my name. I'll take that comparison. Craig Biggio is a great player. He'll probably be in the Hall of Fame some day."
Donald batted .304 with 12 home runs and 71 RBIs in 134 games last season between Class A Lakewood and Class A Clearwater. He said he hasn't had a multi-homer game since his senior year at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California.
"It's pretty surreal," Donald said. "This kind of stuff doesn't happen too often. If I hit home runs, I run into them. To get the opportunity to do this is pretty amazing. It's something I can take with me."
- Another young player, right-hander Drew Carpenter picked up words of praise from both Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee after he came over from minor league camp to throw four innings against the Yankees. Carpenter threw a shutout against the Yankees and struck out Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada and Wilson Betemit in the seventh and then worked out of a bases loaded, no out jam in the ninth with two strikeouts and a weak pop-up.
"I'm trying to be the next Kendrick," Carpenter said, referring to the young pitcher who wound up helping the Phillies rotation last season. "That's all I'm working for - to get to Philly. I want to help the Phillies this year." Like Donald, Carpenter is also slated for Double-A Reading, the same place where Kendrick was pitching when the Phillies brought him to the majors.