CLEARWATER, Fla. - The scene in the Phillies' clubhouse late yesterday afternoon was a welcome one. Players hurriedly slipped out of their uniforms and into their traveling clothes, packing up the last of their belongings before heading out to four buses that idled outside Bright House Field.
"I'm glad we're going up north," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "You can quote that."
As Charlie Manuel debriefed the spring in a conference room next to his office 45 minutes before the ride to Tampa International, his tone was mostly positive. Most of the team's objectives from mid-February had been accomplished.
The Phillies left Florida without any major injuries . . . The winner of the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation, righthander Chan Ho Park, had perhaps the most impressive spring of any pitcher in camp . . . And second baseman Chase Utley, who got his 34th and 35th plate appearances of the spring yesterday, and third baseman Pedro Feliz, who went 4-for-5 with three doubles and a home run, both eliminated any questions about their physical availability for the start of the regular season.
All were question marks 3 weeks ago. All have been answered.
But Manuel and the Phillies still have some things to sort out before their Opening Day roster is due Sunday morning. They hope Cole Hamels will take care of one of those questions when he pitches against the Rays in an exhibition game at Citizens Bank Park tomorrow. The lefthander is still behind the other starters in camp thanks to a bout of elbow inflammation that sidelined him briefly in mid-March. Hamels is scheduled to make his debut on April 10 at Colorado, but he will have to prove he is ready tomorrow.
"Pitchingwise, I'll be a little bit satisfied when we get Hamels completely well and stretched out where he can be the Hamels that we know," Manuel said.
The second big question involves the final couple of spots in the bullpen, where lefthanders J.A. Happ and Jack Taschner and righthander Gary Majewski are likely fighting for two openings.
Taschner struggled yesterday, allowing two home runs and walking two while struggling with his command in an inning of work. Majewski pitched a scoreless inning, lowering his spring ERA to 2.57.
Happ had a shaky outing in relief 2 days ago against the Yankees, but the Phillies say they won't put too much stock in it since the lefthander was making his first relief appearance after narrowly losing out on the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
Taschner, who has made just two appearances since being acquired from the Giants last week in exchange for catcher Ronny Paulino, seems to be the biggest mystery. He has minor league options, so he could theoretically start the season in the minors. But the Phillies traded for him with the idea that he would join their bullpen.
"I feel like Taschner needs work," Manuel said. "I feel like location and command was one of his big problems today, and I don't know how much pitching he's done this spring. I do feel like once he is ready - if he is not ready, I don't really know, because I haven't seen him that much - but I feel like once he gets going he has a chance to help us. I feel like right now, especially today from what I saw, his command wasn't real good."
The final piece to the puzzle lies on the bench, where the Phillies have spent most of the spring looking for a righthanded bat to complement lefties Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs. Utility infielder Miguel Cairo had a good spring, but the Phillies seem to prefer a player with more power.
As the Phillies left for the airport yesterday, there were no indications that they were any closer to signing recently released slugger Gary Sheffield.
Sheffield's agent, Rufus Williams, said last night that he and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had spoken by phone yesterday, and he said the Phillies were still one of a number of teams that Sheffield would consider playing for. Williams did not specify a timeline, but Sheffield is believed to value playing time, which the Phillies would be able to offer in limited supply.
"It's important that Gary be on the field," Williams told the Associated Press. "It's important that he play. It's his intent to play beyond this season."
All in all, though, Manuel likes where his team is. Ryan Howard hit his 10th home run of the spring yesterday, while Rollins finished with a .355 Grapefruit League average.
"Let me tell you guys something," Manuel said. "The guys who step up, those are the guys who really push and motivate our team. They are our catalyst guys. Those are our guys, our guns, whatever. We have some of the best players in baseball. If we just play with some of those guys, just play with them, we are going to be OK."
The Phillies finished the spring with a total attendance of 143,500, a new spring training record for Bright House Field . . . Cole Hamels, who appeared on the cover of the Feb. 23 issue of Sports Illustrated, is on the front of SI for Kids this month . . . Fans will be able to keep track of the Rolaids Relief Award standings at RolaidsReliefMan.com. Closer Brad Lidge won the 2008 National League award . . . Righthander Joe Blanton will start tonight against the Rays. *