TAMPA – The Phillies entered Thursday's spring-training game with three weeks to go until Opening Day — more than enough time to determine who their fifth starter will be or whether they will even need one.
One of the candidates — Zach Eflin — pitched Tuesday in an empty ballpark against minor leaguers, while another — Ben Lively — threw Thursday against Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and the rest of the New York Yankees.
The race for the fifth starter – unless the Phillies sign a free agent – has seemed to narrow to two. Tom Eshelman will likely begin the season at triple A, and Drew Hutchison, in camp on a minor-league deal, seems to be on the outside.
"Everyone knows it's going to be a competition coming into spring training," Lively said after allowing three runs on five hits in four innings in a 7-6 win over the Yankees. "You can't really think about it, because if you think about it, you're going to mess up. I'm just going to stay on my same game plan, keep grinding, keep going."
Most of the team's roster spots were secured before the players arrived at spring training. The Phillies need to choose their fifth starter, the last two arms in the bullpen, and the last bench player. There is not much drama.
Lively flashed a nice slider to freeze Stanton on a strikeout, but he was hurt by his four-seam fastball. The righthander likes to pitch inside and pitch to contact, which usually does not bode well against a lineup like the Yankees. There were a lot of hard outs before Didi Gregorius lifted one of those tailing four-seamers to right field for a two-run homer.
Lively has pitched well this spring, looking more mature than the pitcher who made 15 major-league starts last season. One rough inning against one of baseball's best lineups won't spoil that.
"A couple of those four seamers came back, and they barreled it," Lively said. "Can't do anything about that. Two pitches. That's baseball."
Eflin is finally recovered from the pair of knee surgeries he underwent at the end of the 2016 season. He has looked strong this spring, and manager Gabe Kapler said Eflin "came out looking beautifully" after his simulated game on Tuesday. He has more life on his fastball and has the attraction of the unknown. How good could the former first-round pick be now that he's fully healthy? The Phillies still have three weeks to figure that out.
"I think they both responded to competition … beautifully," Kapler said. "We never said like, 'You guys are competing for a fifth spot in the rotation.' That's more external. Internally, you guys are competing, and that's it. They've both competed beautifully."
Yacksel Rios left the game with a mild left-ankle sprain after facing two batters. Kapler said the injury is not serious and Rios was pulled as a precaution. The righthander has not allowed a run in five outings and has struck out three in 41/3 innings. Rios, 24, reached the majors in August and will likely see time this season, with the Phillies frequently rotating their last bullpen spot between the majors and triple A.
"We saw that it was probably the right move to get him out of there and keep him safe," Kapler said. "Nothing to be concerned about long term."