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March 27, 2016

Phillies Notes: Fifth starter decision coming Monday, Mackanin says

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The final week of spring training was set up to be a dramatic one for the Phillies, with the two pitchers battling for the fifth spot in the rotation on tap to start on Monday and Tuesday. First Vince Velasquez against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, and then Adam Morgan vs. the New York Yankees in Clearwater on Tuesday.

But, as it turns out, those starts aren’t likely to factor into the team’s final decision. It could come before either takes the mound, according to manager Pete Mackanin.

Following the Phillies 5-1 loss to the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Mackanin was asked about the coming week and the decisions that were still to be made. Prior to boarding the bus for the two-hour-plus trip back to Clearwater, Mackanin sounded like he and the front office already had a decision made on the vacant fifth starter job.

“I’ve got to talk to (general manager) Matt (Klentak), but we’re going to make a decision tomorrow at some point during the day,” he said.

So these next two starts won’t play into the decision?

“Probably not,” Mackanin said. “Barring injury.”

It’ll be interesting to see which way Mackanin and the front office goes.

Velasquez, 23, joined the organization in the December trade that sent Ken Giles to the Houston Astros. The Southern Californian with the mid-90s fastball has shown flashes of his potential this spring and his overall numbers have been strong, too: 3.21 ERA in four games (five earned runs in 14 innings) with 16 strikeouts and two walks.

Morgan, 26, was a fixture in an ever-changing Phillies rotation at the end of last summer and thrived in what began as a three-man battle this spring with Velasquez and fellow left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. Morgan, who had his last spring start halted after three innings because of rain, had a 1.50 ERA in four games (two earned runs in 12 innings) with two walks and two strikeouts.

Perhaps Mackanin gave the slightest of hints on Saturday, when he was asked about the bullpen and said it was a “good possibility” that the team wold carry three left-handers in the ‘pen. Maybe it’s reading a bit too closely into the proverbial tea leaves, but a rotation with Velasquez (and fellow right-handers Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton and Jerad Eickhoff) would be balanced out with a trio of lefties in the pen, including long-man Oberholtzer.

One scenario that doesn’t sound like a possibility: keeping Eickhoff down in Clearwater when the season starts to give him one more tune-up start while both Morgan and Velasquez open the season in the starting rotation.

Eickhoff, who suffered a small fracture to his right thumb in the beginning of February, made what was just his second Grapefruit League start on Sunday. Facing a lineup with the majority of Red Sox starters, Eickhoff was hit hard, allowing five runs on 11 hits, including two home runs.

Eickhoff called the game “frustrating” but also said he was working on incorporating his slider more and didn’t use his trademark curveball until later into the 88-pitch outing. Asked if he could see staying back as an option, given his slow start to the spring, Eickhoff didn’t sound like a pitcher who had had that conversation with coaches or management.

“I think the fact that I threw (88) pitches, I think shows that I’m ready,” he said. “So if the next outing is 100, I feel like it could be 100. I feel strong, I feel good, I feel healthy. That’s the main thing.”

Eickhoff isn’t sure when his turn will come up when the regular season starts, but it’ll probably be in either the third game of the season (in Cincinnati) or the fourth (against the New York Mets at Citi Field), with Morton starting the other game.

But then who takes the fifth? We should know tomorrow.

Bullpen men

Hector Neris has had a so-so spring, but he had an effective outing on Sunday, allowing just one hit while striking out two in two scoreless innings.

On the surface, Andrew Bailey appeared to pitch well two, working a 1-2-3 frame in the eighth inning. He allowed a fly ball out, a ground ball to third base, and a pop fly to shallow center.

But, for the third time in as many Bailey appearances, Mackanin wasn’t overly complimentary.

“He looked OK,” Mackanin said. “I’d like to see more from him.”

Mackanin’s latest comment came a day after he said he’d like to see better command from the former two-time All-Star Bailey, who allowed back-to-back hits (including a triple) in Saturday’s game in Clearwater. And just four days before that, Mackanin said he wanted to see more velocity from Bailey at this point in the spring.

So, what gives?

“I need to see more from him,” Mackanin said of the criticism. “Let’s leave it at that.”

The minor-league contract Bailey signed has an opt out of May 1, meaning the Phillies could start him at Triple-A and buy their time to see if he gains momentum with the IronPigs. Bailey is among a group of what’s likely nine pitchers competing for three openings in the Phillies ‘pen.

Herrera hits 

Odubel Herrera admitted his timing was off on Friday night, when he struck out in his only two plate appearances in his first game in 13 days. It’s fair to say he caught up with his timing this weekend.

Herrera followed a 2-for-5 performance on Saturday with a trio of singles in the Phillies 5-1 loss in Fort Myers. Herrera, who missed 11 games with a bruised middle left finger, went 3-for-3 on Sunday and scored the team’s lone run when Maikel Franco doubled in the first inning.

“He’s a freak,” Mackanin said. “This guy can hit. He’s just a real different kind of hitter. He’s got such great hand-eye coordination, it doesn’t take him long to get on track.”

Herrera is 5-for-10 since returning to the lineup on Friday with a double and three strikeouts. He is hitting .424 (14-for-33) in 10 games.

“The more I play, the better I feel,” Herrera said.

PHIL-INS: Maikel Franco hit a double high off the green monster in left-center at jetBlue Park in his first at-bat on Sunday. A TV replay showed that a fan reached over and that it probably should have counted for a home run. Franco has eight home runs in 19 games this spring, the most for a Phillies player since Ryan Howard hit 10 in 28 games in the spring of 2009. … Cesar Hernandez went 2-for-3 in Sunday’s game and is hitting .357 (20-for-56) with six walks, five strikeouts and six stolen bases this season. He is the likely favorite to leadoff on Opening Day, with Herrera and Franco hitting second and third in Mackanin’s lineup. … Sunday marked the reunion between the Phillies and former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the new Red Sox first base coach. Amaro talked about his new job and his legacy with the Phillies prior to Sunday’s game.