Phillippe Aumont eyes bullpen role with Phillies

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Phillippe Aumont could fill the Phillies' need for a strong middle-innings reliever.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Phillippe Aumont could fill the Phillies' need for a strong middle-innings reliever.
Posted: March 27, 2013

DUNEDIN, Fla. - Charlie Manuel wants Phillippe Aumont in his bullpen. At least, that's what it sounded like on Monday afternoon after the hulking righthander threw a nine-pitch scoreless inning against the Blue Jays in one of his last Grapefruit League outings of the spring.

Manuel talked about the potential of pairing the hard-throwing, 24-year-old with lefthander Antonio Bastardo in the seventh inning, while also pointing out that it might take some time for some of the players on the lower end of the bullpen totem pole to get into a regular-season groove.

"I think those guys, when the season starts, they might take a little time, but once they get comfortable and throwing strikes, we're going to have a real good bullpen," Manuel said.

The strike-throwing is the biggest part of the equation as the Phillies make their final decisions for the Opening Day roster, which is due on Sunday afternoon. Assuming they do not add another arm from outside the organization - always a possibility as teams across the majors pare down their rosters - the final spot in the bullpen will come down to Aumont or righthander Mike Stutes, who pitched well in 2011 but missed most of 2012 with a shoulder injury that required surgery.

tutes has walked four of the 11 batters he faced in his last two outings, so Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee could decide he needs some time pitching at Triple A after a layoff of nearly a year. Aumont has not locked down the job beyond all shadow of doubt. Against the Blue Jays, he got behind the three batters he faced 2-1, 1-0 and 2-0 before recording two flyouts and a groundout. Still, Aumont said he felt more comfortable on the mound, and Manuel concurred.

"Obviously, I still think about the fact that I could get called in the office and they could say, hey, you need to go work on some of your stuff at Triple A," Aumont said. "I'd be disappointed, but I think they're giving me the opportunity right now to work on the stuff with them and prove that I can adjust and I can make improvements on the things that they are telling me to get better. That's what I've been focusing on. Today I felt much better, much more comfortable."

Aumont's spring has followed the trajectory of his career. With a mid-90s sinker, the potential for dominance is obvious. In his first seven appearances after the Phillies called him up last August, he struck out six while walking two and allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings. In his final 11 appearances, he struck out eight and walked seven, while allowing five runs in 8 1/3 innings. Aumont's attempt at winning an Opening Day roster spot got off to a strong start this spring. He retired six of the seven hitters he faced before heading to the World Baseball Classic. Then came a rocky outing against Italy, which was followed by a scoreless outing in a late-and-close situation against the United States.

When Aumont returned to Phillies camp, he struggled with his command, hitting a batter with a pitch in his first outing and walking two straight to lead off his second outing. In that second outing, he recovered from the hole he dug himself by striking out two straight batters and getting a third to ground out to end the inning. Including Monday's performance, he has retired 10 of the last 12 batters he has faced.

Regardless of what happens with the final spot in the bullpen - lefties Raul Valdes and Jeremy Horst are strong bets to make the squad, along with veteran righthander Chad Durbin - the Phillies will enter with a stronger unit than last year.

Jonathan Papelbon has allowed one baserunner in his last 4 2/3 innings, and Mike Adams has allowed one run all spring, not that either part of the team's setup/closer combo had much to prove.

Still, the seventh inning could be much more important than it has been in recent years. Last year, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee combined to pitch into the seventh inning in 44 of their 61 starts. But Roy Halladay did so in only seven of 14 after returning from the disabled list, and his struggles this spring raise some questions about how consistently his soon-to-be 36-year-old arm will allow him to pitch deep into games. Last year, Kyle Kendrick pitched into the seventh in 12 of his 25 starts. No. 5 starter John Lannan, who allowed 12 runs in four innings on Monday, is not known for pitching deep into games. In his last full season as a starter, he pitched into the seventh in 10 of 33 starts.

If Lee, Hamels, Kendrick and Lannan stay healthy all season and perform at close to the same level, that would equate to between 70 and 75 games where the starter pitches into the seventh inning, with Halladay as the big question mark. If he can return to the pitcher he was in 2011, the Phillies would be closer to the mark they posted that year of 97 starts that went into the seventh inning. But if he performs more like the pitcher he was after his disabled-list stint, the bullpen would wind up with plenty more seventh innings to lock down.

Last year, the Phillies blew eight leads in the sixth inning and five leads in the seventh. They also allowed a tie to become a deficit eight times in the sixth and four times in the seventh.

That could mean a big role for somebody like Aumont.

On Twitter: @HighCheese

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