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March 24, 2016

Rain delays Phillies fifth starter decision in Disney World

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – A voice – perhaps a relative of the famous monorail voice – came over the sound system at Champion Stadium at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in the bottom of the third inning of Thursday night’s Phillies-Braves exhibition game.

It asked that everyone leave the premises, as inclement weather was due to strike. But everyone ignored the voice, naturally, as a critical Grapefruit League game was on the line.

Finally, a half inning later, the official public address announcer decided he was going to play the role of Ray Kinsella and go along with the voice. He also asked for everyone to leave the field and for the spectators to make their way to the concourse, and they all did.

The Phillies-Braves game came to a premature end following a 1-hour, 18-minute delay, when everyone decided sitting through a spring training rain delay for close to 90 minutes wasn't anyone's idea of fun.

All kidding aside: it wasn’t the ideal result for left-hander Adam Morgan and the Phillies, who will play their first game at Citizens Bank Park a week from Friday (in an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles) and open up the regular season one week from Monday with the final composition of their starting rotation undecided.

Morgan, competing with right-hander Vince Velasquez for the fifth spot in the Phillies rotation, pitched three shutout innings against the Braves before the voice arrived and then the rain washed away Thursday night’s game.

Bummer, eh?

“Yeah, even though I felt like I was struggling a little bit to keep the ball down, I felt like I was making the right adjustments,” said Morgan, who allowed two singles, a walk, and a few hard hit fly balls. “But you can’t control mother nature. … It’s definitely a bummer because I want to showcase what I have. But, then again, I don’t want to lose any sleep over it.”

The Phillies could attempt to bring back Morgan on Sunday, and act as though Thursday night’s abbreviated start was a bullpen session. If they went that route, Morgan could make two more starts in the nine exhibition games that remain on the schedule. Still, it might be a stretch after he threw three innings Thursday.

“I just want the best five starters I can find. If he can pitch, he can pitch. If we’ve got lefties that can get righties out and we’ve got righties that can get lefties out. I’d like to take the best pitcher."

“I don’t know – I’m up for it,” he said. “But I don’t know what the schedule is looking like.”

Velasquez, meanwhile, last pitched in a minor league game on Tuesday (5.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 5 K, 1 BB, 1 HBP) and is likely in line to make his penultimate exhibition start on Easter Sunday in Fort Myers against the Boston Red Sox.

So far, the two-man competition (lefty Brett Oberholtzer was moved into a relief role within the last week) has been close to a draw. Manager Pete Mackanin was asked prior to Thursday’s game whether it would be useful to have a left-hander in a rotation that’s currently home to four right-handers, Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton and Jerad Eickhoff.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Mackanin said. “I just want the best five starters I can find. If he can pitch, he can pitch. If we’ve got lefties that can get righties out and we’ve got righties that can get lefties out. I’d like to take the best pitcher. It’s a big night. Going down the stretch for Morgan, if he pitches well, it’s good. It’s a battle, the whole way down. It’s interesting. It’s kind of fun.”

But probably less fun if both continue to impress and Mackanin has to call one into his office and tell him he’s beginning the season in Allentown.

“The reason it’s nerve-wracking is I think both of them are going to finish strong, both of them are going to pitch well,” Mackanin said. “And that’s what makes it nerve-wracking. And then it’s no longer fun. You have to make a tough decision.”

In a way, Mackanin and the coaching staff has a better idea what they have in Morgan, who had a 4.48 ERA in 15 starts with the Phillies at the end of last season. Morgan allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of his 15 starts (and two runs or fewer in eight games) and pitched at least six innings in nine of those games, too.

Could he have an edge if the Phillies want just a little bit more certainty at the start of the year, possibly a better bet on someone who will ease the burden the bullpen will already have backing up a young staff?

“We know he can get past the fifth inning, he’s shown that ability last year,” Mackanin said. “He’s got increased velocity somewhat (this spring) and he’s got a cut fastball, which is good against right-handed hitters. You know what? I like both of them. We don’t know what we’re going to do.”

While the coaching staff knows Morgan better, you could make the case that the current front office has stronger ties to Velasquez, who was the prize of the Ken Giles trade in December. Velasquez has the bigger arm (and thus, likely the bigger upside).

Following his start Tuesday in the Carpenter Complex, Velasquez said he’s tried to tune out the chatter of what’s probably been the best fifth starter battle in camp since Chan Ho Park-J.A. Happ in 2009.

“Just go out there and pitch,” Velasquez said. “You have to realize that a lot of guys are trying to take that spot. They’re trying to take that spot, but then in the future, someone in the minor leagues is trying to compete for that spot. It’s something to really consider and really take serious. This is your job. This is what you want to do. If you want it, you have to go after it. I keep that mentality. I have to stay focused and keep grinding it out.”

Perhaps the Phillies take the easy way out in the next 10 days: put both Morgan and Velasquez in the rotation to begin the season and let Eickhoff make an additional start in extended spring training or Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Eickhoff didn’t pitch in his first Grapefruit League game until Tuesday after fracturing a small bone in his right thumb last month.

While Eickhoff has caught up and looked sharp enough on Tuesday at Bright House Field, holding him back for one more start wouldn’t be crazy, either, and it would buy the Phillies a little more time to make the call between Morgan and Velasquez.

PHIL-INS: Odubel Herrera (bruised left middle finger) took pregame batting practice for the second straight day and was available to pinch hit on Thursday night. Mackanin hopes to have Herrera in his starting lineup (for the first time since March 12) on Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays. … Infielder Emmanuel Burris started in center field on Thursday. Mackanin said he’d like to see both Burris and fellow non-roster player Ryan Jackson in the outfield in the coming week as the Phillies, already two outfielders short, make final decisions on their 25-man roster in the next 10 days. … Recently-named Opening Day starter Jeremy Hellickson is on tap to start opposite fellow right-hander Marco Estrada on Friday, when the Phillies host Toronto in the lone home night game of the spring at Bright House Field (6:35 p.m.).