So far, Phillies have been a confident bunch in camp

Manager Charlie Manuel likes the confident air about the Phillies in this spring training camp. "We're healthy," he said. "We're playing everybody and seeing what we've got."
Manager Charlie Manuel likes the confident air about the Phillies in this spring training camp. "We're healthy," he said. "We're playing everybody and seeing what we've got." (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: March 06, 2013

BRADENTON, Fla. - Space is tight at 90-year-old McKechnie Field, and the Phillies encroached upon the Pirates' batting practice when they began stretching Monday. Gaby Sanchez jogged past, dodging red jerseys and the batting cage. The Pittsburgh first baseman noticed Chase Utley in the pack and made eye contact.

"How are these?" asked Sanchez, who put his hands on his kneecaps.

Utley nodded his head and smiled. "Good," he said.

Tuesday marks the three-week point of Phillies camp in this elongated spring, one defined by cautious optimism. There is a different feel than previous springs shrouded in secrecy by injury concerns and debates over the words "setback" and "plateau."

Really, the Phillies could not have planned these three weeks better.

"We're healthy," Charlie Manuel said. "We're playing everybody and seeing what we've got. I like the way our camp has been running so far."

The manager was particularly pleased after he watched his team one-hit Pittsburgh in a 5-0 victory. A mere 22 exhibition games await the Phillies in Florida, so plenty can change.

For a .500 team accustomed to much more, the renewed energy is a welcome sight. Manuel has twice called it one of the best springs he has overseen as manager. Scouts from opposing teams have parachuted into Phillies camp and noted the renewed spark.

Utley is healthy and moving better. Ryan Howard has played in 11 games in 11 days. (He is in there again Tuesday.) Roy Halladay has proclaimed himself healthy and the velocity readings are favorable.

There are questions - Darin Ruf and left field chief among them - with time to find answers. No player has made a better impression on Manuel than Domonic Brown, whom the manager labeled as the spring surprise. Brown is hitting .346 (9 for 26) with three home runs and has taken charge in the fight for a starting outfield job.

"Domonic Brown has definitely showed a good stroke since the first game," Manuel said. "He's been the consistent guy."

The changes in Manuel's coaching staff were designed to install a more positive attitude among a group of older veterans. The response is what Manuel wanted: His hitters have displayed better patience in the early spring.

"It's real good to see," Manuel said. "It also comes from the fact we are definitely talking more. We have two hitting coaches. We have myself, Ryne [Sandberg] and Schmitty [Mike Schmidt] here. We are always talking about hitting. We are always talking about working the count, getting good balls to hit and balls you can jump on."

All of it is just talk and 12 Grapefruit League games are hardly the proof of a working system. Still, as the veteran Phillies say, it is a desirable alternative to the dark cloud that hovered over camp last spring.

"We probably didn't have too much of a chance last year," Jimmy Rollins said. "That wasn't fun."

Jonathan Papelbon stirred controversy everywhere but the Phillies clubhouse when he said the team lacked leadership in 2012. His teammates did not view the comments as criticism. They were the final epitaph on a lost season and team that lacked the necessary talent.

That failure, combined with the rise of Washington and Atlanta, has diminished the attention on this bunch.

"Let them talk about the Nationals and Braves," Manuel said. "If we get overlooked, we can change that. One good streak can change all that. People are always running for the ones winning."

That used to be the Phillies. The team orchestrated made-for-TV news conferences to show off their stars in past springs. That commotion has disappeared this spring, replaced by a quiet confidence. Of course, optimism is contagious, especially this time of year. No one can declare that this team is fixed, not in early March.

But as far as spring starts go, it could be worse.


 

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