ATLANTA - The Phillies could find themselves celebrating Cinco de Mayo about quatro days early. Yesterday, manager Charlie Manuel said that he is operating on the assumption that righthanded starter Joe Blanton and lefty setup man J.C. Romero will have a realistic chance of returning to the active roster around May 1.
"That's kind of what I've been hearing, what I've been going by," Manuel said. "That's kind of been the plan."
That is also right around the time when shortstop Jimmy Rollins is eligible to return from the disabled list. Rollins, who strained his calf during warmups for the Phillies' home opener on April 12, has resumed some baseball activities and can be activated any time on or after April 28.
"After the first couple of days, he actually felt really good, much better than he felt the day he injured it," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "He's been feeling pretty good."
Blanton, on the disabled list since late March with an oblique strain, made his first rehab appearance last night, throwing two impressive, no-hit innings for Class A Lakewood. He is tentatively scheduled to make two more rehab appearances.
Romero, still recovering from offseason elbow surgery, took another step in his progression last night, pitching for Triple A Lehigh Valley for the second consecutive day. He faced three Syracuse batters, allowed a hit, walked one and had a strikeout.
Most Phillies relievers follow a spring-training progression that sees them pitch on back-to-back days just before the start of the season.
But that doesn't mean Romero will return in the coming days. Although Amaro said a return during the current nine-game road trip through Atlanta, Arizona and San Francisco is possible, it certainly isn't a shoo-in.
"A lot of it depends on the next couple outings," Amaro said. "He's going back-to-back today, and that'll give us a good read. And I think we're going to stretch him out to go a little more than an inning if he gets through this back-to-back OK. A lot of it will depend on how he feels, and how effective he is."
Amaro says he doesn't see the point in publicly estimating when he expects an injured player to return, and he's probably right. A major league GM has enough headaches without having to answer persistent questions about a player being "behind schedule" when, in fact, the schedule was fluid to begin with.
So, yesterday, he declined to handicap the odds of lefthander J.A. Happ shaking what the team has described as a mild flexor pronator muscle strain in time to start against the Diamondbacks on Saturday. Happ, who suffered a similar bout of soreness during the 2007 season and wound up skipping the Arizona Fall League season, played catch on flat ground with pitching coach Rich Dubee prior to last night's game, but the Phillies won't know much about his status until he throws off the mound during a bullpen session scheduled for tomorrow.
Because Happ could further injure his left elbow by pitching more - the flexor pronator muscle is attached to the flexor pronator tendon, which Romero tore last season and missed most of the last 3 months - the Phillies say they will treat Happ's injury with caution.
Two pitchers who returned to complete strong seasons after short stints on the disabled list with similar conditions are Mariners righties Felix Hernandez and Ian Snell. For others, the injury was a harbinger of elbow surgery.
"If he feels pain when he throws or it kind of grabs him where he can feel it at all, I would say skip him until his arm gets free and loose and he's well," Manuel said. "The whole purpose when you skip somebody or you don't pitch somebody is to get them 100 percent. That's where we want Happ, Blanton, J.C. Romero and [closer Brad] Lidge."
After Saturday, they wouldn't need a fifth starter again until May 4, and possibly longer if Blanton is back as expected.
Still slightly behind J.C. Romero is Brad Lidge, who will make his first start at Triple A Lehigh Valley tomorrow night.
Lidge's return from offseason knee and elbow surgery has progressed slower than expected, but he has made significant strides over the past week. After allowing five runs on five hits in his first two rehab starts at Class A Clearwater, Lidge has pitched three consecutive scoreless innings, striking out four, walking one, and allowing no hits. Lidge's velocity is currently sitting from 88-91 mph while touching 92, Ruben Amaro said. During the 2008 season, Lidge's fastball generally sat from 92-94. But, according to the Phillies, the closer has made significant gains in arm strength and velocity since the cortisone shot he took in late March.
"Brad's been getting sharper with his slider, which is important," Amaro said. "That's probably the last thing to come. His velocity is not quite there yet. Those two things are the last thing to come."
Ruben Amaro downplayed the four runs rookie righthander David Herndon allowed in the ninth inning against the Marlins Friday - three of Florida's hits never left the infield - and said he hoped to continue to hang on to the Rule 5 pick, who must remain on the active roster the entire season or be offered back to the Angels. With Joe Blanton, Jimmy Rollins, J.C. Romero and Brad Lidge all hopeful of returning in the next 2 to 3 weeks, the Phillies could face some difficult decisions.
"I hope we have the problem," Amaro said. "I hope we have multiple guys pitching well so it makes a difficult decision for us."