TORONTO - No team in baseball shifted its infielders fewer times than the Phillies during April. The idea intrigued Ryne Sandberg last winter, but he limited the implementation to "obvious" situations at first.
Bench coach Larry Bowa and Sandberg examined the Blue Jays lineup and saw a potential advantage.
Aggressive shifts against Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Juan Francisco-based on data from spray charts-followed. Those players hit balls at defenders until the 10th inning of Tuesday's 6-5 loss, when Bautista bounced an Antonio Bastardo fastball to Chase Utley's usual spot for an opposite-field single that put runners on first and third.
For Bautista, Utley was positioned to the left of second base. He might have turned Bautista's grounder into a key double play at his normal positioning. Then again, had the shift not been implemented, Bautista might have tried to pull Bastardo's pitch.
The Phillies played the percentages, Sandberg said. He planned to do the same in the next two games against Toronto. But a day later, Bautista's hit had the manager rethinking some defensive strategy.
"That's part of the adjusting and seeing how things go," Sandberg said. "We have spray charts and reports that he's a dead pull hitter on the ground."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Phillies ranked 29th in shifts last season with 45. They shifted 13 times in April. (The Yankees, by comparison, shifted 152 times.) Sandberg's group may have surpassed its April total in just two games against the Blue Jays.
It is a work in progress. Sandberg will stress better communication from coaches, infielders, and pitchers. The infielders have practiced some shift scenarios, Sandberg said, but not all of them.
The coaches could change their thinking, too. The Phillies, for example, may adjust their shifts with runners on base. Sandberg said he could move Utley a few steps to his left to act as a deterrent against a hitter thinking about beating the shift.
"There's holes out there," Sandberg said. "We put our defense where we think they're going to hit it. You can't have someone everywhere, but there are also some adjustments there we can make as we go along."
Jimmy Rollins (sore right groin) returned to Sandberg's lineup Wednesday, after a two-game absence, but not at shortstop. He served as the designated hitter. He could return to shortstop Thursday.
"That's a step in the right direction," Sandberg said.
Darin Ruf (strained rib cage muscle) will begin an official rehab assignment Thursday at single-A Clearwater. A spot on the major-league roster is not guaranteed, although Ruf could replace one of the two middle infielders on the bench. . . . On Tuesday, Cody Asche (23 years, 310 days) became the youngest Phillies player to hit a grand slam since Pat Burrell (23 years, 255 days) did it on June 21, 2000.