"Oh," Manuel crooned, "I've seen some long ones."
The end of this charmless spring was close, so they told stories - and that made the waiting easier. Few managers know the pulse of their team better than Manuel, the 68-year-old lifer. Life without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will be a challenge, possibly the tallest in the eight seasons of his leadership.
But as Phillies camp concluded, the manager said he was most impressed by the attitude in his clubhouse, specifically the demeanor of Jimmy Rollins. There are myriad distractions in the form of expectations, injuries, and bold statements from competitors.
"You can say whatever you want to say," Manuel said. "It's up to us to handle our business."
Manuel echoed a statement made by his shortstop five years earlier, with a new caveat: "Until somebody beats us, we're the team to beat," he said.
Manuel's confidence stems from an ever-flowing positivity that is rarely shaken. It is fueled this spring with a renewed faith in Rollins, whom he plans to bat third.
He did just that for the first 27 games in 2011, when Utley also was missing from the lineup. There were mixed results in a small sample. Rollins drove in only five runs from the three-hole, but that could be an indictment on the hitters in front of him. He reached base at a .361 clip, good anywhere in the order.
Until recently, Manuel insisted that Rollins would man the top of his lineup, as usual. But after watching the 33-year-old this spring, he sees a better fit lower.
A good part could be mental, too. Manuel wants to ride Rollins' good feelings. At his best in the middle, he could stimulate a lineup missing so much. He signed a four-year, $38 million deal in the winter.
"Jimmy's always been that kind of guy, especially when he's playing good and into things," Manuel said. "He's been real positive. He's back to being himself. He's been good. Hopefully, he can stay healthy."
Manuel praised Rollins' penchant for working the count this spring and being smarter about his at-bats. Rollins hit .241 (14 for 58) in Grapefruit League play.
"Jimmy is in that upbeat mode," Manuel said. "Where he's at, he's happy about everything. His wife is getting ready to have a baby, and he really seems happy about that. Jimmy can be that big push on the field. He can hold the fort down until Howard and Utley get back."
That is asking too much from one player, but Manuel has ideas beyond actual on-field production. Utley is the unquestioned dominant presence in the clubhouse. During his 2011 absence, Manuel wondered whether there was a lack of passion at times without Utley's daily influence.
He sees an involved Rollins and, to an extent, Jim Thome as the steadying forces. Aside from Freddy Galvis, Thome may be the surprise of spring given his ability so far to handle semi-regular work at first base.
So, yes, Manuel has seen worse springs, but none immediately came to mind Sunday. The manager took a long look around an empty stadium and nodded his head.
"We know what we have to do," Manuel said.
Extra bases. He hasn't decided on any lineups yet, but if Rollins often is batting third, Manuel could insert Juan Pierre at the top the lineup. He did that in Sunday's Grapefruit League finale, a 7-7 tie with Atlanta. Shane Victorino could hit there, too. . . . Ruiz had two more hits Sunday and finished Grapefruit League play with a .500 (22 for 44) batting average. . . . Jose Contreras pitched in a minor-league game Saturday, but the team still expects him to begin the season on the disabled list to build arm strength. . . . The Phillies are taking 31 healthy players north for the two exhibition games against Pittsburgh at Citizens Bank Park.
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