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March 12, 2016

Pitching concerns lingering for Phillies in Clearwater

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Bob McClure stood in the hallway between the main entrance to the Phillies clubhouse and the manager’s office and pulled off quite the trick: He began eating his lunch while also fielding questions on the respective health status updates on more than a half-dozen of his pitchers.

He didn’t have to look at a schedule or a medical report. Even with 30 pitchers still standing (or perhaps more accurately, still competing for a job before the end of camp), the pitching coach had it all mapped out in his gray-haired head.

Well, almost.

“I can’t keep track of everyone,” the pitching coach finally joked when the sixth and seventh names of pitchers with uncertain statuses were brought up in the first 30 seconds of a lunchtime briefing with the media.

McClure has a little help from manager Pete Mackanin with the chore of keeping up with the almost endless line of pitchers in Camp Clearwater. And even with so many having either been scratched from starts this week (Charlie Morton, Jeremy Hellickson), or held out of action for nearly two weeks (David Hernandez, the only lock for the bullpen), or held out of action for the entirety of the spring (Jerad Eickhoff, Jimmy Cordero, Frank Herrmann, Michael Mariot), they are both confident all will be well when the team departs Clearwater in 18 days.

“There’s a little concern there, but I’m not overly concerned,” Mackanin said after a 9-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday. “I think everybody is going to be healthy. We might be set back a little bit with how far extended they can get. But they’re all healthy enough that I know they’re going to start the season. And, knock on wood, I’m hoping we stay healthy the rest of the spring.”

Unfortunately for Mackanin, there wasn't any wood to knock on when he answered the question while standing near the third-base foul line toward the left field corner on Saturday.

The Phillies did win Saturday’s game, though, thanks mostly to a trio of home runs, from outfield prospect Nick Williams and non-roster players J.P. Arencibia and David Lough. Crazy things can happen in the final two weeks of exhibition play, but no member of that trio is likely to be with the team on Opening Day in Cincinnati on April 4.

It’s even uncertain if Vince Velasquez, a bright spot among the mass of pitching uncertainty in camp, will be with the team then.

The 23-year-old kid from SoCal with the mid-90s fastball looked about like any high ceiling prospect. He showed off his sheer talent in sending down Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki down 1-2-3 in a perfect third inning, and in retiring that All-Star trio in five of the six matchups. But he also showed there’s work to be done when he struggled with command and consistency against the bottom of the Jays lineup: he walked Darrell Cecilia twice, a player’s whose name you would probably only know as a Phillies fan because he was the only one in Toronto’s lineup not projected to be in their regular batting order in 2016.

“I guess my fastballs were all over the place,” Velasquez said. “I have to do something else other than throw fastballs, fastballs, fastballs.”

Velasquez still has the best arm among the trio of pitchers competing for the fifth starter job, but it remains uncertain if he’ll be able to show enough to beat out lefties Adam Morgan and Brett Oberholtzer, who both may have a leg up, at least in this stage of their respective developments, in pacing themselves and pitching consistently through an order through the course of a regular, seven-inning start.

This isn’t to knock Velasquez (or Williams, or any other the other younger players in camp who are still in development as big league prospects). But it is to say that the 9-3-2 record the Phillies are sporting after two full weeks of games is a bit of a mirage, not that there are many that would think otherwise.

Winning is nice, surely.

“It’s always good to win and keep everyone going into the seasons positive,” Mackanin acknowledged after the Phillies ran their current spring unbeaten streak to eight straight games.

But the majority of the names fans are especially excited about this spring will be opening the season in Allentown, Reading, Clearwater and Lakewood. And a majority of the names moving north with the team for the start of the major league regular season will include pitchers that haven’t even gotten into a regular routine yet this spring, or have less-than-successful recent track records.

Mackanin might not be concerned now. But it’s also just March 12.

Here’s a bit of good news, so we don’t drown you in Debbie Downerdom on a Saturday night/Sunday morning: former two-time All-Star Andrew Bailey continued to look like a legitimate closer candidate against Toronto.

Bailey pitched a perfect fifth inning in relief of Vasquez, striking out Donaldson, the reigning American League MVP, and dropping an impressive curveball (that ended up being called a ball) to start an at-bat vs. Bautista. (In the interest of full disclosure, he also got a little help from his friend Maikel on a screaming line drive off the bat of Kevin Pillar).

“He was good,” Mackanin said. “He threw a real good breaking ball that I liked. He said he doesn’t have his cutter, it’s early for him. But I liked the sharp break, the tight spin on that breaking ball. That was nice to see.”

Bailey, who hasn’t allowed a run or issued a walk in three games this spring, could become the front runner for the ninth inning job if Hernandez (signed to a $3.9 million contract in December) doesn’t return soon. Hernandez, who hasn’t pitched in a game since March 1, “looked fine” in a Saturday morning bullpen session, according to McClure.

The other pitching injury/schedule updates: Hellickson (scratched with an illness Wednesday) will throw in a minor league game in Clearwater on Sunday; Morton (scratched Friday with an illness) could pitch in a minor league game Sunday, too; Cordero threw to hitters for the second time in four days and could be inching closer to his first game action of 2016; Eickhoff, who injured his thumb while in a cage bunting a month ago, allowed three runs in two innings of a minor league game on Saturday and could make his next start in a Grapefruit League game.

And now, the Phillie Phanatic vs. Jose Bautista.