For Phils, time to let (exhibition) games begin

For Phils, time to let (exhibition) games begin
March 2, 2012, 8:54 pm
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CLEARWATER Theyve done all the perfunctory spring-training conditioning drills and fundamentals. There will be more to come, but they will mostly be performed in the mornings, before the pace of the day quickens and the crowds shuffle in.

Now, the focus of Phillies camp shifts to the games and getting the at-bats and the innings that will make a player or a pitcher ready for the regular season.

The Phillies open the month-long Grapefruit League schedule Saturday afternoon with a 1 p.m. game against the New York Yankees at Bright House Field.

Cole Hamels will start the game and likely pitch two innings. Ivan Nova will start for the Yankees.

Chase Utley will not play.

Manager Charlie Manuel on Friday restated his plan to hold Utley out of early games as a way to preserve the 33-year-old second basemans knees.

It might be a little while before I play him, Manuel said. Im in no hurry as long as we have him for the season and he feels good.

Utley is on board with this thinking. He missed the first 47 games last season with a severe case of patellar tendinitis that must still be managed.

The first few weeks are going to be a little slower than normal, he told reporters early in camp. You guys might not see me on the field on a daily basis, so dont freak out if that happens. The whole goal is to move in a positive direction and so far were doing that.

Manuel will also go easy with third baseman Placido Polanco in the early going. Polanco is 36 and coming off surgery to repair a double groin tear.

Manuel said Utley and Polanco would both get enough at-bats to be ready for the regular season.

Age and health are major concerns for this team and that showed in the upgrades that management made on the bench. Phillies officials believe they have sufficient reinforcements if injuries strike, and Manuel wants to watch some of those reinforcements in Grapefruit League play.

I want to see our young players and the players we brought in over the winter get to play and see where they fit on our team, especially early, Manuel said.

Those new and young players include a group that will vie for work in left field. John Mayberry Jr. is the lead candidate for the primary job, but his ability to play first base while Ryan Howard mends from Achilles surgery will give Manuel a chance to look at Domonic Brown, Laynce Nix, Scott Podsednik and Juan Pierre in left. Brown figures to open the season in Triple A and Nix, a left-handed stick, is on a two-year contract. Podsednik and Pierre could stage one of camps best battles as they compete for the fifth outfielders job. Both are speedy players whose game revolves around the ability to get on base. They will get much playing time this month.

Another newcomer, Ty Wigginton, will see ample time at the corner infield spots. Jim Thome will get his licks as a designated hitter and pinch-hitter. He is likely to see time at first base in some minor-league games before getting a taste of the position in big-league action.

There will also be some competition for bullpen jobs and roles. Jonathan Papelbon, who is scheduled to get an inning of work Saturday, is set at closer, but the eighth-inning setup man is undetermined. Veteran newcomer Chad Qualls could get the job. Antonio Bastardo, who shined in the role last season before struggling in September, is another candidate. Jose Contreras, also experienced in the role, is not quite ready for game action as he comes back from elbow surgery. He should be ready for games in a couple of weeks.

Papelbon, Qualls, Bastardo, Contreras (when hes ready) and Kyle Kendrick are basically sure-bets in the bullpen. Mike Stutes has a good chance to make the club based on his work last year. The Phils would like to carry a second lefty in the bullpen and veteran Dontrelle Willis will get a long look for the job. David Herndon and non-roster veterans David Purcey and Brian Sanches will also be in the mix for bullpen jobs.

In addition to monitoring competitions for jobs, Manuel wants to see an improved offensive approach from his club this spring. He wants to see his hitters work counts better, grind out more productive at-bats and score runs early in games.

Theres a lot to do before opening day.

Let the (exhibition) games begin.

E-mail Jim Salisbury at jsalisbury@comcastsportsnet.com

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