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March 29, 2017

Did the Phillies Opening Day roster get finalized in two games 70 miles apart in Florida?

LAKELAND, Fla. – The Phillies front office and coaching staff aren’t going to make their decisions for their 25-man Opening Day roster based on one day in two different ballparks in the Grapefruit League.

But the activity that took place in the Phillies split-squad games against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., and 70 miles down the road in Bradenton against the Pittsburgh Pirates could surely make their deliberations a little less stressful.

Entering the third-to-last day of camp with six players bidding for four spots, the Phillies saw nearly every bubble candidate take the field and push their own individual needle in one direction or the other. The biggest benefactor may have been veteran Daniel Nava.

The 34-year-old Nava, a non-roster player in camp, ripped a three-run home run off former American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander in the Phillies 8-2 win in Lakeland. Nava, a switch hitter who has played first base and the corner outfield this spring, finished the game 2-for-4 to raise his team-leading spring batting average to .395.

“Nava – that was a big hit,” Larry Bowa, the acting manager in Lakeland, said of the third-inning three-run home run that erased the Phillies 2-0 deficit.

“He’s been burying cutters into lefties and that one today probably didn’t get it in as far as he wanted,” Nava said of Verlander.

Despite being the only veteran with any big league experience bidding for one of the two bench jobs in camp, Nava’s path might not be as easy to a roster spot.

Following Tuesday’s roster moves, the trade that sent Alec Asher to the Baltimore Orioles and the release of veteran bat Chris Coghlan, fellow first baseman and non-roster player Brock Stassi is seen as a heavy favorite to one of the two bench jobs. Asher’s subtraction opened a spot on the 40-man roster for a non-roster player.

Like Nava, Stassi also had two hits, including a home run, in the Phillies 8-2 win over the Tigers in Lakeland. Stassi has six home runs this spring.

The third position player competing with Nava and Stassi is second base prospect Jesmuel Valentin, who has been the team’s second-best hitter after Nava this spring and has the advantage of already having a spot on the team’s 40-man roster. Valentin struck out in his only at-bat on Wednesday.

“Brock and I have been talking about it,” Nava said with a laugh about a couple of non-roster players vying for similar jobs. “We realize we’ve done basically everything we can do. So from that perspective, I know I can be confident that with whatever I did, it wasn’t for a lack of effort or performance. Obviously, you have two guys who I think are very qualified to make the team. It’s outside of our power to choose that. Hopefully, they keep both of us.”

There could be a fair possibility that turns out to be exactly what happens, even though another spot on the 40-man roster would have to be created. Coincidentally, something else that took place in Lakeland could open that spot up.

Luis Garcia, competing with left-handers Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez for the final two spots in the bullpen, is currently on the 40-man roster and was hit hard by a Tigers lineup that featured most of their regulars, including Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, and Victor Martinez.

Garcia, who started the game, gave up three straight hits to open the first inning. Six of the first nine batters he faced reached via hit (five) or hit batter (one). He was charged with two runs in two innings.

“I wasn’t thinking about that (lineup), I was just thinking of making my pitches, that’s it,” Garcia said.

The 30-year-old Garcia has been an on-again, off-again reliever in the Phillies’ pen since 2013. But he spent the majority of the 2016 season at Triple-A and sported a 6.46 ERA and 1.89 WHIP in 17 games with the Phillies.

After gaining momentum again this spring, buoyed with the introduction of a splitter to his repertoire, Garcia labored on Wednesday in Lakeland. He needed 45 pitches to get through two innings.

“He didn’t have command,” Bowa said. “His sinker was up. He’s been throwing the ball well (this spring). That’s a tough lineup and they came out and they had a game plan. It was a tough lineup to get through. … I would have liked to see Luis throw a little bit better, but, again, it’s a tough lineup. It’s not like there were Triple-A guys in there. These guys that he faced were All-Stars.”

Garcia has allowed eight hits in four innings in his last two appearances.

Does he leave Lakeland wondering if his place in the bullpen mix is in jeopardy?

“I did my part today, that was pitching,” Garcia said. “I don’t know about (the roster).”

Meanwhile in Bradenton, the two left-handers competing for two spots with Garcia held their own against the Pirates.

Adam Morgan allowed one earned run while striking out three and walking no one in three innings, lowering his ERA to 2.45 in seven games. Joely Rodriguez threw two scoreless innings, striking out one and walking one.

“Morgan really pitched well,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He made a couple mistakes but he's starting to figure out what kind of pitcher he is and I think that's going to be helpful to us.”

And Rodriguez?

“Joely pitched well,” Mackanin said. “It's always an issue about command and control with him. He did a good job. We still don't know exactly what we're going to do. But he pitched well.”

Mackanin, who hadn’t seen any of the game in Lakeland, said he wasn’t ready to commit to any roster decisions on Wednesday afternoon. But with just 48 hours until the Phillies break camp and head home, those decisions are beginning to look a lot easier to make than they had been heading into the day.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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