Bob Ford | Casual outlook soon over for Phils

Posted: March 27, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. - The Phillies took the field yesterday against the New York Yankees knowing that in the thin space of exactly one week they would be playing baseball again, not for the limbering sake of a spring-training exercise under fluffy, forgiving clouds, but in a game against a division rival with a result marked indelibly on their permanent record.

If that notion bothered the Phils, it didn't show as they shuffled through a perfunctory 5-1 loss to the Yankees at Legends Field, a tidy, blue-rimmed park on busy Dale Mabry Boulevard, where a large sign reminds passers-by that the spring residents have, indeed, won "26 World Championships."

The Yankees, as they do nearly every season, have a team capable of editing that sign before another spring passes. It is the nature of the franchise, both in mind-set and in a willingness to mortar its roster gaps with generous dollops of money.

For their part, the Phillies don't have the same financial luxury, although they do claim a similar winning mind-set in far greater proportion than "One World Championship" in 124 previous National League seasons would indicate.

The two teams parted ways after yesterday's proceedings were completed in a businesslike 2 hours and 31 minutes, and are unlikely to meet again in 2007, regardless of how far the Yankees take their annual quest to repaint the sign.

Coming off an uplifting season - uplifting because of Ryan Howard's MVP year and the continuing development of some key young players, but overlooking another failure to land in baseball's postseason - the Phillies were a popular pick to reach their stride this time around and win their first NL East title since 1993.

Much of the reason for that optimism still holds, although if spring training is any indication of the coming season, the Phils will struggle simply to equal their 85 wins of a year ago. Rather than a sprint ahead of the howling pack, they seem destined to endure a dogfight within the division, competing against a good New York Mets team and a rejuvenated version of their old nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.

"I like our team," manager Charlie Manuel has said here. "We'll be all right."

He likes the Phillies, however, in the theoretical sense of what they should be, not in the actual sense of how they have looked this spring. The pitching staff is an obvious point of concern, as it is for nearly every major-league team, but there also are yawning holes in the offense, if production here is to be taken seriously.

Some of that is the timeless mirage of a baseball spring, and the tendency of professional athletes to control their output like a jockey reins a horse carefully until the starting gate.

"I don't think they pay me to play in spring training. They pay me to get ready," said starting pitcher Adam Eaton, who has pitched fewer than 200 combined major-league innings in the last two seasons because of a variety of hand injuries.

Eaton, whose earned run average here is 6.06, got ready on Saturday by allowing eight hits, including two home runs, five runs, and three walks in a start against the Cincinnati Reds.

At least he is healthy. The Phillies reported yesterday that Freddy Garcia, another off-season acquisition for the starting rotation, was able to "long toss" as he deals with a bout of tendonitis in the biceps on his pitching arm. This qualifies as great news only if baseball decides to move the rubber 40 yards from home plate, but will remain meaningless until he can once again throw hard and without pain from 60 feet, 6 inches.

The backup plan, if Garcia is unable to begin the season in the five-man rotation along with Eaton, Brett Myers, Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer, was to grease the slot liberally and slide in veteran Jon Lieber. That was before Lieber turned up with a strained right oblique muscle, however, a condition that has been given an indeterminate recovery period.

With all that in mind, the Phillies gave a start yesterday to Zach Segovia, a righthander who pitched in single A and double A last season and whose chief recommendation is that, at the moment, there are no other candidates.

Segovia wasn't bad against the Yankees, not horrible, anyway. He gave up all five runs, four of them earned, which New York scored on an economy of just three hits in their 4 2/3 innings of work against him. He had the misfortune to throw the wrong pitch to Alex Rodriguez with two runners aboard in the first - three-run home run - and went walk, double, double to begin the fifth for the other two runs. In between he retired 11 straight, and Manuel liked that part.

"I'd say he could be our first option," Manuel said of Segovia, in the event that neither Garcia nor Lieber is ready.

Let me be the first to say this about such a possibility: Hoo boy.

The bullpen also remains a thicket of potential problems, and the desire of Pat Gillick to improve it has been hampered by the injuries to the starters - thus removing the possibility of trading a healthy Lieber, say, for help in the pen, and by some issues among the everyday players.

The Phils have some reasonable outfield options and could trade Aaron Rowand for bullpen help, but Rowand, after an 0 for 2 yesterday, is batting .170, and his value isn't so great. He isn't alone in struggles at the plate. Pat Burrell, who might or might not be wearing contact lenses now (no one bothers to even ask), is batting .178, and Howard is in a 5-for-38 funk that has dropped him to an unthinkable .218, with two home runs.

Howard will hit, of course, and the others will do better as well. There will be pitchers who are hurt and then get healthy all season long. These are the rhythms of baseball, even if they seem particularly unsyncopated at the moment.

That is comforting. What is not is that the real games - and the real need for a good start to the season - are a scant six days away.

The opportunity for the Phillies to construct their own billboard touting a fresh accomplishment seems much further away than that, though.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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