CLEARWATER, Fla. — Baseball's season of change started Wednesday for a Phillies team trying to recapture its past with a core of mid-30-somethings.
This is the year of expanding replay, a 20th-century technology that baseball has finally fully embraced in a long-overdue effort to get as many calls as possible right. It was also going to be the year that home-plate collisions were outlawed, but that idea was recently reviewed and replaced by a rule that allows certain home-plate collisions but not others.
At some point these two things are bound to cause chaos, confusion, and confrontation on a baseball diamond, but on this cloudy day they were nothing more than conversation pieces in the Phillies' clubhouse before the team's Grapefruit League opener against the Toronto Blue Jays at Bright House Field.
As for the baseball, it was exactly what you'd expect from an exhibition opener: a little good, a little bad, and a long parade of players moving on and off the field.
From the Phillies' perspective, the best part of their rain-shortened, 4-3 loss came in the bottom of the first when the regulars knocked around former teammate J.A. Happ for two runs on four hits and a Jimmy Rollins walk.
Ben Revere, a white-hot hitter when his season prematurely ended last July, opened with a single and moved to second on a wild pitch. Rollins, in the second spot where manager Ryne Sandberg wants him to become comfortable, followed with a walk.
After Chase Utley struck out, Ryan Howard lined an RBI single to left-center field, and Marlon Byrd started his Phillies return with an RBI single to center field. It was Howard's third hit off a lefty in two days. He had singled off teammate Jesse Biddle and homered off teammate Cesar Jimenez in an intrasquad game Tuesday. Howard hit .173 against lefties each of the last two seasons, but Sandberg believes he can still be successful against them with the right approach.
"I want to see if he can make them throw the ball over the plate," Sandberg said. "Be patient and be relaxed in those situations, get a good ball to hit. Make the pitcher come to him. I know he can hit balls in the strike zone whether it is righthanded or lefthanded pitching, so if it means being patient and taking walks, that's for the betterment of the team."
Howard has not drawn more than 100 walks since 2007, and Sandberg does not want to put a total on how many times he thinks his first baseman should walk this season. More often would be ideal, especially if the alternative is chasing pitches out of the zone the way he has in recent years.
"If they don't want to pitch to him because of last year, take the walk," Sandberg said. "Spit on it, take the walk, there are hitters coming up behind him. Will that result in 75, 100, 120 walks? Probably. He's seen it and been talked to about the lineup with the guys ahead of him and behind him. He doesn't have to do it all by himself."
We'll see how it goes during the course of the long, long season, but it was a good start for the Big Piece.
Things didn't go as well out of the gate for Roberto Hernandez, Phillippe Aumont and the Phillie Phanatic.
In his first start since joining the Phillies, Hernandez allowed two runs on four hits, including a home run by Jose Bautista that left the entire stadium. A groundball pitcher, he said he was up in the zone and behind in the count too often.
Aumont, coming off a disappointing 2013 season, was all over the place in his spring debut. He allowed two runs on a hit and two walks while also throwing a wild pitch.
"I'm just going to say it's first-time jitters," pitching coach Bob McClure said.
Wind was the Phillie Phanatic's excuse for a wild effort in his first appearance with the hot dog launcher at Bright House Field. Some dogs fell short of the stands, others left the ballpark entirely.
The Phanatic better get this right before opening day.
Baseball, meanwhile, is hoping to have its replay system and home-plate collision rule in working order by opening day. Tony Clark, the first-year executive director of the Major League Players Association, said those two topics dominated talk in the home clubhouse before the game.
"Time," he said was the major concern about replays. "Players don't like to play four-hour games any more than fans like to watch four-hour games."
Interpretation will be the controversial issue concerning the new collision rule.
As they say about so many things at this time of year: That's what spring training is for.