CLEARWATER, Fla. - There's been a lot of talk about small ball this spring, but the numbers say that one big swing beats several small swings, and the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rays yesterday bore that out. The big swing was a familiar one, and it came in the fourth inning. Chase Utley led off the frame by lining a 1-0 pitch to centerfield, and Ryan Howard followed by sending the next pitch over the fence in rightfield.
Now, compare that with what happened the following inning. Cody Asche, who finished fourth on the team with a .390 slugging percentage last season, led off with a bunt single against lefty Mike Montgomery. Freddy Galvis followed by hitting behind the runner on a single through the right side of the infield, and Ben Revere sacrificed an out to bunt the runners to second and third. This set the stage for Cesar Hernandez, who hit .237/.290/.281 in 125 plate appearances last season. He struck out. After a walk to Chris Nelson, Ryan Howard popped out to end the frame.
The fourth and fifth innings were an interesting sequence, given manager Ryne Sandberg's professed determination to get his team to think small this spring. Sometimes, "small" means having a .306 hitter such as Revere give up an out to put runners in scoring position for a .237 hitter such as Hernandez. Last season, Revere struck out in 49 of his 601 at-bats, while Hernandez struck out in 33 of his 114 at-bats. Of course, that doesn't mean Sandberg will handle a regular-season situation the same way. It does mean he thought something could be gained from seeing Hernandez in such a situation, and so the strikeout is something to note, particularly on a day when Hernandez committed two errors, one of which led to the Rays' only run. The 24-year-old infielder entered the spring as one of the leading contenders for a spot on the Phillies' bench. He is out of options, which means he needs to pass through waivers before he can be sent to the minor leagues. There aren't any obvious candidates to take his spot, but with Andres Blanco's continued solid play and Odubel Herrera's ability to play second, you can bet Sandberg will consider all of his options if Hernandez gives him reason to.
All that said, if the Phillies' offense ends up exceeding the expectations it has set for itself with its play in the early going (despite a 6-4-1 record, they are averaging under three runs per game), there is a good chance that it will be due to swings like the one Howard unleashed against rising star Chris Archer in the fourth inning. The first baseman entered the day 4-for-19 with six strikeouts, no walks, and no extra-base hits, but the Phillies have not given up hope that he at least can return to where he was in 2013, when he hit .266/.319/.465 for a .784 OPS that was higher than any posted by the team's regulars last season (Marlon Byrd led the way at .757).
"My body's been feeling good, my legs have been feeling good," Howard said. "We've had a good workload over the course of spring training. I'm happy with where I am at right now. I'm happy with my weight, I'm happy with the way my legs are holding up. I feel pretty good."
Howard wasn't the only positive sign to come out of yesterday's game. Utley was in the lineup for the first time all spring; he spent the first month of camp working his way back from a sprained ankle he suffered during an offseason fielding workout. He put together two quality at-bats against Archer, including the single that led to Howard's two-run home run.
Pitching prospect Jesse Biddle pitched two scoreless innings, striking out one and walking none and working out of a two-on, nobody-out jam. Justin De Fratus struck out the side in the ninth inning to nail down the save.
"I felt great, I felt ready, my arm was feeling really good," Biddle said. "I don't want to say that I'm happy that I had runners on first and second with no out, but if I'm going to do that and practice that, it's really nice to be able to get out of it and see what it takes and make the pitches I have to make."
The big concern to emerge from yesterday involved a rotation that already seems likely to be without lefthander Cliff Lee, and could be without Cole Hamels if general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is able to engineer a trade. Righthander Aaron Harang was scratched from his scheduled start against the Tigers today. It is the second time Harang will have a start moved back. The veteran has battled some back soreness this spring, although he said it was not an issue after his last outing. The Phillies said the scratch was a "precautionary measure."
The Phillies already expect Lee and righthander Chad Billingsley to start the season on the disabled list. If Harang joins them, the rotation will feature Hamels, David Buchanan and Jerome Williams, with nonroster invitee Kevin Slowey as a potential No. 4 starter. Few candidates are available to fill the final spot in the rotation. Nonroster invitee Paul Clemens will start today's game against the Tigers. The other two candidates are underwhelming Cuban righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and journeyman Sean O'Sullivan. That could complicate the Phillies' quest to scratch out more runs than the other team.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy