CLEARWATER, Fla. – The easy part is over for Gabe Kapler and his young Phillies team. The book on spring training closed Tuesday afternoon following a 5-5 exhibition tie with the Pittsburgh Pirates and, predictably, the rookie manager felt good – no, make that great – about what his team accomplished.
"Our first camp was tremendous," Kapler said. "We asked them to show an incredible level of intensity, to run the bases with intent and to be bold across the board. They executed on that and we asked them to demonstrate the highest level of teammate behavior and look out for each other and they executed on that. I talked to the group earlier in the day and there were a lot of big eyes, big smiles and excitement going to Atlanta. We're pretty ready."
Kapler was most complimentary of his veteran bench coach, Rob Thomson, who he said arrived at the ballpark every day around 3:30 a.m. to plan the day's workout. In his final talk of the spring with his players, he made sure they knew and appreciated Thomson's effort.
Not even a rough first inning for celebrated mid-camp free-agent addition Jake Arrieta at Spectrum Field could dampen Kapler's joy about the work just completed and the optimism as the Phillies headed to Atlanta for Thursday afternoon's season opener against the Braves.
"I think [Arrieta] demonstrated what a seasoned veteran he was today," Kapler said. "Obviously he ran into a high pitch count early on when he was featuring a lot of fastballs."
The result was four first-inning runs on five hits by the Pirates, including a three-run blast from Josh Bell. After consecutive doubles made it 4-0, Kapler had a meeting on the mound with his star veteran and Arrieta did not allow another run during the remainder of his three-inning outing.
"He just said, 'Look, I'm going to make an adjustment here and go to my breaking ball and my offspeed,' " Kapler said. "He started to have really, really efficient innings … and ended the outing on 45 pitches exactly, which is what we had in mind. We don't really care about the results."
The only question now is whether Arrieta will pitch a simulated game next week in New York or back here in Clearwater. The pitcher seems intent on doing so at Citi Field while the manager seems to prefer Clearwater. Regardless, Arrieta is still on pace to make his regular-season debut against the Miami Marlins April 8 in Philadelphia.
Arrieta, of course, was the biggest addition to the roster during spring training and he certainly was not going to panic after surrendering four runs in his second and final Grapefruit League outing. The 32-year-old righthander has a history of difficult spring trainings, including in 2015 when he allowed 15 hits and walked five batters in 14 innings. All he did that year was win the National League Cy Young Award with a 1.77 ERA.
"It was the last game of the spring and I got in the mind-set of throwing a bunch of fastballs in there, which is fine, but I was missing spots and gave up a few runs," Arrieta said. "The second and third inning, I was mixing breaking balls and throwing change-ups, and obviously it's a lot easier that way. I feel healthy and I got to right around 50 pitches. I could have gone more and now everybody is just excited to get out of Clearwater."
Three Phillies pitchers – Tommy Hunter, Jerad Eickhoff and Mark Leiter Jr. — will open the season on the disabled list. It appears the least serious of the three injuries is Hunter's to right hamstring, sustained while running on a treadmill earlier this week.
"I don't think it's too serious," said Hunter, who will accompany the team to Atlanta. "I can't field a ball. I can throw a pitch, but I just can't play baseball. I threw a side [Monday], but they rolled me a ground ball right afterward and I quit and went straight to the training room."
Eickhoff (lat injury) and Leiter (strained flexor) will likely miss most of April, which opened the door for longshots Drew Hutchison, Jake Thompson and Victor Arano to make the opening-day roster.
"You're going to have minor tweaks," Kapler said. "It's impossible to avoid small and, not harmless but relatively innocuous, injuries. I think these are ones that we get through a couple days and Tommy Hunter is going to be good and it won't be long before we have [Eickhoff] and Leiter back."
Now, it's time to start the season and we begin to see how Gabe Kapler manages and how his young players perform when the games count.
"Right now I don't feel any nerves," Kapler said. "That's not to say that I won't. But right now I'm sort of relishing the fact that we just had a really successful camp. It was all about getting those guys to the finish line of this camp healthy and strong, and I feel like we did a really good job."