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Manuel trying to avoid complacency

Manuel trying to avoid complacency

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Some of the numbers aren't pretty, and manager Charlie Manuel has noticed.

With the team's Grapefruit League record at 4-9-1 after losses in seven of its past eight games, it's pertinent to note the date -- March 11, or 20 days from Opening Day, against the Washington Nationals.

Yes, these wins and losses don't count, and the statistics counter will soon be reset. But if you're wearing red pinstripes, don't let Manuel hear you say the two words that aren't as true as they were on Feb. 27, when the Phils played their first Spring Training game: "It's early."

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"People look at these games and say they don't count, but every time you pick up the ball to pitch or a bat to hit, they count," said Manuel. "For you, personally, they count. You don't have to win a championship in Spring Training, but you do have to win some games."

Though the projected Opening Day lineup is hitting a respectable .264 combined, that number is largely attributable to Ryan Howard, Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz. The quintet of Jimmy Rollins, Geoff Jenkins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino comes in at .207.

Jamie Moyer and Brett Myers have been solid in their appearances -- they've pitched twice in Minor League games so the team can watch other young pitchers -- but Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Adam Eaton and the Durbins (Chad and J.D.) have a combined 12.19 ERA. This spring's collective ERA is 10.85.

Not good. Especially disturbing to Manuel is that the pitchers have given up early runs, immediately putting the offense in a hole. It's understandable that the manager who watched his pitching staff compile a 4.73 ERA last season -- 13th in the National League -- is concerned.

"[Over] the next few weeks, [our pitchers] have another three or four more starts," Manuel said. "Now is a big time for them, and when I hear they feel like they're going good and stuff like that ... Somewhere along the line, we have to start holding 'em.

"It seems like every time we lose, we get behind [early] in the game. I'd like to see us throw real good enough for five or six innings, and we can muster some type of offense in that time."

With 18 Grapefruit League games remaining -- with a needed day off on Tuesday -- this is typically the time when pitchers begin concentrating on setting up hitters rather than throwing exclusively fastballs or more curveballs than normal, or specifically working on a certain location. Sometimes this conflicts with a manager's desire for more results, but that's natural.

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The lackluster mound results have made it difficult for Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee to evaluate the candidates for the fifth starter's job and the two open bullpen jobs. Eaton (15.75 ERA) remains the front-runner for the rotation, but Kris Benson will likely join as soon as he's healthy. If Eaton re-establishes himself, Benson could slide into the spot of another struggling or hurt pitcher.

The team had hoped that one of the lefties would seize a bullpen spot, but Fabio Castro, Vic Darensbourg and Shane Youman have been inconsistent. Rule 5 pick Travis Blackley remains an option if he doesn't win the fifth starter's job.

"We're still trying, and still want to win [Spring Training games], but we're also looking past the game results and trying to look at the pitchers who are here and trying to determine who might have a chance to help us [at some point during the season]," Manuel said.

There have been bright spots, notably Howard's .433 mark, with three homers and seven RBIs. The slugger said last week that he's feeling better after coming into camp lighter than he was last year. Feliz is at .310 with two homers and has been playing a crisp third base.

Of Howard, Manuel said, "He had a great winter and came into camp relaxed and in a good mood. The time off was good for him, and he's really starting to swing the bat well and hit the ball hard."

Manuel doesn't want a Grapefruit League title, he just wants enough victories to lift the spirits of the defending NL East champions.

"You want to win enough to keep the harmony and the attitude fun and the energy high," he said. "Everything that goes into the camaraderie, you want to win enough to keep all of that. You want to avoid going flat in games, like we have [the past few losses]. That bothers me. You don't want to see players get complacent or lazy. I'm a firm believer that winning takes care that."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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