CLEARWATER, Fla. - Six days ago, the Phillies were pinning their hopes of being a surprise, sleeper team on the left arm of a man who hadn't thrown in a game since July.
After suffering a setback, there's a decent chance Cliff Lee won't pitch at all in 2015. So now the Phillies are hoping a guy who is coming off two surgeries and has logged all of 12 major league innings since 2012 can fill in for Lee. And the one pitcher in camp who is older and who has pitched in more games than Lee. And the International Man of Mystery, too, for good measure.
With the distinct possibility that Lee will be lost for the season, the progressions of Chad Billingsley, Aaron Harang and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez in the last 2 days were more than noteworthy.
A contingent that included team president Pat Gillick and special assistant to the general manager Charley Kerfeld watched as Billingsley threw to hitters yesterday morning for the first time in 9 months. Pitching coach Bob McClure called the 25-pitch session "very encouraging."
"From an arm strength thing and the way it's coming out of his hand, you wouldn't be able to tell if that guy was ever hurt or not," McClure said. "So whoever did the operation did a good job."
This is the reality of where the Phillies stood 3 weeks and 6 days before Opening Day. Of course, every preseason prognosticator had the Phillies pegged as the worst team in baseball over the winter, so perhaps this was just the start of that team's arduous task of putting together a competitive pitching rotation for the duration of a 162-game season.
Even without Lee, the season's schedule has to be played. Even if Cole Hamels is eventually traded, the games must go on.
He won't be ready for Opening Day, but Billingsley could jump into a rotation spot before the end of April if all goes well in his battle back from two different elbow surgeries. The 30-year-old righthander threw to non-roster players Chris McGuiness and Darin Mastroianni yesterday morning.
He showed a little rust, plunking Mastroianni in the right shoulder with a changeup, but his arm strength looked good for a guy coming off two surgeries since April 2013.
"I think it went well, it accomplished what I wanted to, seeing a hitter in there," Billingsley said. "It's another step, progress in getting back."
Billingsley likely will throw three or four more sessions to live hitters every fifth day before possibly getting into a Grapefruit League game later this month.
A day earlier, Harang made his first appearance in a game this spring. The 36-year-old vet threw two shutout innings. Harang, who had his first start pushed back as he dealt with "maintenance" issues, is in line to jump into Lee's place behind Hamels in the rotation.
Shortly after Billingsley threw on Ashburn Field at the Carpenter Complex, Gonzalez took the mound at Bright House Field for his second start of the spring. He gave up the cycle in two-plus innings against the Detroit Tigers - allowing two singles, a double, a triple and a home run - before exiting the game after taking a line drive on his right knee.
Afterward Gonzalez said his knee was fine. His pitching line so far this spring? Four innings, nine hits, five runs and two losses.
"I thought he made some very good pitches, showed some very good stuff whether it was a fastball that had movement on the corners, or a quality changeup down, some quality breaking pitches," manager Ryne Sandberg said of Gonzalez's work. "When he was in the middle of the plate and elevated, that's when he got hit."
"It's a spring training game, I'm working on things," said Gonzalez, entering the second year of a 3-year, $12 million deal. "It's not like I'm trying to dominate hitters down here. I'm working on specific things."
Asked for specifics, Gonzalez said he's working on location. He hasn't walked a hitter so far this spring, so there's that.
With an uncertain pitching staff, the Phillies will take all the positives they can get to piece something together before camp breaks 3 weeks from tomorrow. Gonzalez, David Buchanan, Kevin Slowey and Joely Rodriguez are the most likely candidates competing for the two spots behind Hamels, Harang and Jerome Williams.
"Slowey has made some nice showings as a possibility," Sandberg said of his current starting pitching depth. "He's shown quality, has a track record. Buchanan, I'd like to see him show some improvement this spring with what he did last year. Joely Rodriguez is another guy with a live arm. We'll continue to look at these guys throughout the spring. That's going to be important with where Cliff is at this point."