The Philadelphia Phillies opened their 2016 exhibition season in Clearwater, Florida on Sunday afternoon.
Over the last four springs, teams from Major League Baseball have taken on collegiate squads in exhibition games at the opening of spring training. Those big leaguers were 23-1 against the collegians heading into the 2016 campaign. The one loss? Last year’s 6-2 drubbing suffered by the Phillies at the hands of the University of Tampa Spartans.
You would have to be excused if you were a fan of the Spartans, and came into yesterday’s 2016 spring opening exhibition game at Bright House Field with high hopes of another victory over the Fightin’ Phils. After all, the school became NCAA Division II champions a year ago, and were already off to an 11-1 start this season.
Well, the current version of the Phillies under new manager Pete Mackanin were in no mood to hand any moral victories out to a bunch of kids on Sunday. In fact, it was some of the Phils’ own kids who instead stepped up and demonstrated the organization’s improved talent.
The Phillies rolled over the University of Tampa on Sunday by an 8-3 score. Mackanin started four of his anticipated regulars at the top of the order in Odubel Herrera, Peter Bourjos, Aaron Altherr, and Darin Ruf. Both Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola, regular members of the starting rotation, saw an inning of action.
Hellickson threw a 1-2-3 top of the first in his Phillies debut. The offense then went out and scored three times in the bottom of the first off UT’s Chris Williams. Nola then followed with a 1-2-3 performance in the 2nd inning. The Phillies bats would tack on three more runs in the bottom of the 3rd inning.
Herrera was the Phils’ offensive spark plug, much as the team hopes he will be come the regular season. He led off the bottom of the first with a base hit, went 2-2, and both scored and drove in a run. “He hit a couple of lasers,” said Mackanin per the AP.
Two others who came up big were a pair of youngsters battling to become the Phillies’ catcher of the future, 2016 Paul Owens Award winner Andrew Kanpp and newcomer Jorge Alfaro, who was part of the haul in the Cole Hamels deal with Texas last season.
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Alfaro beat out a potential doubleplay grounder in the first, which opened the door for the Phillies’ crooked inning, which was highlighted by a 2-run single off the bat of Knapp.
In the 3-run third, Alfaro scored from second base on a single. In the top of the fourth, he nailed a Spartan runner attempting to steal second base. Knapp started as the DH, and also got in three innings as the Phillies’ 1st baseman.
Though Alfaro certainly has the greater natural talent and career upside, Knapp is rapidly establishing that he belongs in the conversation as a legitimate piece in the Phillies rebuilding plans. Either could emerge as the catcher of the future, though one or the other, or both, could see an eventual position switch.
The only negative on Sunday came from the performance of veteran reliever Edward Mujica. The former Boston Red Sox closer was roped around for three hits and three runs against the college kids. He is battling a number of holdovers and newcomers for a role in the Phils’ bullpen, and this was certainly an inauspicious beginning.
The Phillies have a win in their back pockets, something that Mackanin has already stressed will be a part of the focus moving forward. He wants the team to actually care about winning these games, in order to help grow a winning culture.
On Tuesday, the wins become a bit more relevant, as the Phillies open the official Grapefruit League season by hosting the defending American League East Division champion Toronto Blue Jays in a 1:05pm game at Bright House Field in Clearwater. That game will be televised back to the local Philly market on Comcast SportsNet.