NEW YORK - As change permeated every sector of the Phillies last summer, the team's bench coach and pitching coach hatched an idea. Larry Bowa could not believe how quick the infield played at Citizens Bank Park. "Like AstroTurf," he said. Bob McClure heard chatter among his pitchers, and he likened the surface to "playing in a parking lot."
They wanted new grass.
So, when the Phillies step onto the infield Monday afternoon for the home opener, their cleats will sink into Kentucky bluegrass. And, the Phillies said, there is a strategy behind the modification.
"It's just fairer," Phillies president Andy MacPhail said. "You have to give your pitchers somewhere to go."
The thicker bluegrass that replaces the old Bermuda grass follows the new front office's "run prevention" mantra. MacPhail and his general manager, Matt Klentak, have assembled a rotation of predominantly ground-ball pitchers. Fly-ball pitchers face a disadvantage at Citizens Bank Park, which is prone to home runs.
The Phillies are so serious about stressing the value of ground balls at every level of the organization that they ripped up the infield grass in South Philadelphia. A slower sod could cost the Phillies some hits, but the front office has prioritized pitching and defense.
Down to the smallest blade.
"They're trying to get ground-ball pitchers," Bowa said. "The infielders have pretty good range. If we can slow the ball down and still get to those balls because of their range, it should save a lot of base hits."
If the type of grass sounds like an irrelevant detail, just listen to the players and coaches gush after two exhibition games on the new infield.
"You can notice right away," infielder Andres Blanco said. "Right when you walk on the field. It's thicker. It's slower."
"You could tell a difference," Bowa said, "as soon as you hit fungos."
"A lot slower," McClure said.
"For our pitchers, it's going to be good," shortstop Freddy Galvis said. "It's not fast like it was last year."
Mike Boekholder, the Phillies' head groundskeeper, is glad to hear the feedback. It's not as if he was against the Bermuda grass that filled the field for the last four seasons. The outfield will remain Bermuda, which performs best when cut short. It is more manageable, and able to withstand the frequent non-baseball events at the ballpark such as concerts.
When the Phillies moved from artificial-turfed Veterans Stadium to the luscious grass of Citizens Bank Park, they hired Boekholder. The new ballpark originally featured bluegrass in the infield and outfield. Boekholder installed the Bermuda in January 2012 after the NHL Winter Classic destroyed the old sod.
The Phillies, Boekholder said, are the northernmost team with Bermuda grass. Bowa started his push for change late last season.
"Is there something we can do to slow it down?" Bowa asked Boekholder.
The only solution, the groundskeeper said, was a return to bluegrass. Bowa said former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was in favor of the idea. The leadership change delayed a decision. Bowa raised the topic of grass again in October as the team's top officials met in Clearwater, Fla. MacPhail assured him it was done.
On Monday, the bluegrass infield will be cut to 11/2 inches, Boekholder said. The Bermuda was typically less than an inch. "Wow," Galvis said. "We can see the difference." Come summertime, Boekholder said, the bluegrass could be an inch higher than the Bermuda was last year.
"It does tend to grab it a little bit more," Boekholder said. "How much of a real difference it has in the overall speed of an average ground ball, I don't know. A baseball hits an infield twice on an average grounder. It's not like a putting green where you're rolling the ball across. But I'm sure it does have the effect of slowing the ball down."
The Phillies expect the ball to be on the ground more often in 2016. If they can convert those increased grounders into more outs, it could make a visible difference.
Last season, Phillies pitchers posted the lowest ground-ball rate (41.7 percent) of any National League staff. A full season of Aaron Nola and the additions of Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton should raise the numbers of grounders. The minor-league staff is breeding sinkerball pitchers. It must be an emphasis, MacPhail said.
The bluegrass came from Collins Wharf Sod Farm in Eden, Md., the same producers of the Bermuda grass in the outfield. The new setup appeases both the baseball and business interests.
"What we've done now is a pretty good compromise," Boekholder said.
Bowa is thrilled. The 70-year-old baseball lifer made it a priority to slow the grass. The only infield that played faster that Citizens Bank Park's, Bowa said, was Chase Field in Arizona. Maybe Miami's, too.
"You see a pitcher make a pitch and because you're not right in front of it, the ball just scoots right through," Bowa said. "It was too quick. It's a small park, anyway. So we have to even it out a little bit by having thicker grass.
"It's making it fair."