Phils' pitching is still puzzle to solve

Posted: March 26, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Empty storage bins were lined up in front of the lockers. It was announced that the equipment truck would begin its 1,100-mile trek back to Philadelphia tomorrow morning. There was a high-level meeting to go over personnel at the end of the day.

Sure signs that spring training is nearing an end.

The Phillies began their final week of preparation for their 125th season with a 10-2 win over the Minnesota Twins yesterday. They will open the season a week from today against Atlanta.

Here are some of the team's remaining issues as camp winds down:

Freddy Garcia. There's a chance he'll recover from right biceps tendinitis and open the season on time. More will be known when he throws today. If all goes well, he could pitch in a game Wednesday, stay in Clearwater for a minor-league start next week, and pitch April 7 or 8 at Florida.

Manager Charlie Manuel said he is concerned only about Garcia's health, not the below-average velocity Garcia has shown in camp.

"I've spoken to guys he faced last year and they said he was 85-89 [m.p.h.] early in the game but got to 91 as the game went on," Manuel said.

Jon Lieber. Will he be the fifth starter while Garcia recovers or a bullpen find? Probably neither. Manuel said the righthander could need 10 days to recover from a strained right oblique muscle and that probably will mean a trip to the disabled list. If Garcia can't be the fifth starter, Zack Segovia or J.A. Happ might get a shot.

The catching puzzle. Carlos Ruiz is battling shoulder tendinitis. He began throwing yesterday. If he's not ready, Jayson Werth could be the backup, or Chris Coste could open in the majors. Coste has been hampered by a right hamstring injury, has only had 18 at-bats, and could need time in triple A.

The bullpen riddle. Tom Gordon is healthy and that's what matters most. He still needs repetitions and will get them this week. Antonio Alfonseca, Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary slide in behind Gordon. The final three spots are unclear, and there's always a chance one could be filled from outside the organization in a trade. Segovia has made a case to make the roster. He could improve his stock with a good outing against the Yankees today. Clay Condrey, who is out of options and can't be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, remains in the picture. Lefthanded relief is a major concern as neither Matt Smith nor Fabio Castro has pitched well.

"From what I've seen, it's got to get better," Manuel said. "Our lefthanded relief needs to have better success, I'll say that."

The bench. Extra infielder Abraham Nuñez is a definite. Greg Dobbs deserves a spot based on his spring performance and ability to provide good lefthanded at-bats off the bench. Werth appears set, even though some scouts believe he could use some more at-bats after missing last season. That seems to leave three players battling for one job: Coste, Karim Garcia and Michael Bourn.

Ryan Howard. He broke out of an 0-for-17 slump with a fifth-inning single yesterday. The skid has him showing signs of frustration, which is good because it proves he cares but bad because it leads to pressing. No one seems too worried about the reigning National League MVP - other than himself. A few good at-bats over the final week would improve his mind-set, but it looks like he'll make the club.

Pat Burrell. He's had a difficult spring. He took extra hitting yesterday, but did not play against Minnesota. He carries a .190 batting average into today's game. Burrell is the one guy who probably can't afford a slow start or he'll hear it from the fans. So this final week is important for him.

"I think Pat's OK," Manuel said. "He's looked decent one day, then the next day he might face a tough pitcher. . . . These next six days, I'd like to see him get his timing."

Ditto for Aaron Rowand.

The final tune-up. Manuel has said it umpteen times. He doesn't just want the team to be ready for the season; he wants it to be ready to win.

The Phils made a good showing yesterday, getting a strong start from Cole Hamels and plenty of offense, particularly from Chase Utley, who homered twice. Despite the win, the Phils are just 9-15-2 this spring.

Manuel thinks too much has been made of the record because the Phils have lost several games late, after they've deteriorated to minor-league exhibitions.

"If you know baseball and watch games, you know who we're finishing with and how that affects our chances of winning," he said.

Still, Manuel would to rack up a few wins this week.

"Mentally, I think we're ready," he said. "It's just a matter of being healthy. But I'd like to see us win a couple before we break."


Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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