By ROB MAADDI
AP Sports Writer
CLEARWATER, Fla.— An encouraging spring for the Philadelphia Phillies took a downward turn after Roy Halladay’s last start sounded the alarms.
With more than two weeks left until the regular season opener, the Phillies have one major question still unanswered. At least Ryan Howard and Chase Utley seem on the right track, though.
“Things are generally going pretty well,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Wednesday. “Ryan is getting closer to being 100 percent. He’s not going to have all of his strength back and front. An Achilles injury takes a really long time to completely get all the strength back, but he’s moving around better every day and Chase is running around like a 28-year-old, so that’s a good sign.”
Indeed it is for the offense.
The Phillies need Utley and Howard, their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, to be healthy and perform up to their old standards. After all, that’s why they’re paying them a combined $35.3 million this season. Howard has been outstanding this spring, hitting .333 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 15 games. Utley hit his first homer Tuesday and the fact he’s playing at this point after sitting out all of spring each of the last two years is a positive step.
As for Halladay, he can’t be expected to pitch like he did in 2010-11. But the Phillies need him to be better than last year when he was 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA. Halladay got roughed up by the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday. His velocity was down and he had trouble locating his pitches. He immediately dismissed any injury, but manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee were concerned.
Amaro played it cool.
“Obviously Doc hasn’t pitched as well as we would’ve liked so far,” Amaro said. “But he has three more shots at it and hopefully he can start pitching with the type of stuff he’s accustomed to, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Halladay is a key part of a rotation that includes Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. If healthy, that trio is as formidable as any in the majors. But an average Halladay puts more pressure on Hamels and Lee to be dominant. They’re making a combined $36.5 million this season, so expectations should be high for them.
Beyond the big three, the Phillies entered spring training with questions about their outfield and bullpen. So far, Domonic Brown has taken control of one outfield spot. But Darin Ruf appears to need more work learning to play left field.
Brown, a former top prospect, went into Wednesday night’s game at the New York Yankees batting .400 with three homers. Ruf was hitting just .188 with no homers. He had two errors and was still adjusting to the transition from first base.
“Domonic has stepped up and had a good spring,” Amaro said. “He’s moving around well in the outfield and seems to be settling in.”
Ruf led the minors with 38 homers last year and is trying to crack the starting lineup after spending most of 2012 in Double-A. But the Phillies can’t afford to put him out there if he’s a defensive liability.
“We’ve thrown a lot of things at him,” Amaro said. “He’s a kid who is basically coming from Double-A and trying to making a major league club that wants to contend, and he’s trying to learn a new position so all of those things are very difficult. It’s not easy. We still have some time to decide what we want to do with him. He’s still going to get some reps and have opportunities.”
The Phillies signed Delmon Young, the ALCS MVP for Detroit last year, to be their everyday right fielder. But Young is still recovering from ankle surgery and is expected to be ready between April 15 and May 1.
“This next week or so he’ll do more activity with his legs and more lateral movement,” Amaro said. “He’ll do more in next week to 10 days. We’ll put him in games and see if he can get acclimated again to right field, where he’s most comfortable. We’re not going to put him out there unless he’s an adequate defender. If not, we’re going to wait until he’s ready physically as far as his injury is concerned and also give him enough reps with rehab games and extended spring games or whatever it takes.”
The bullpen is set with closer Jonathan Papelbon and setup man Mike Adams. Left-hander Antonio Bastardo and veteran right Chad Durbin have two other spots. That leaves right-handers Phillippe Aumont, Mike Stutes and Justin De Fratus and lefties Raul Valdes, Jeremy Horst, Jake Diekman battling for the final three spots. Aumont and Horst have the inside track on two of those. Veteran starter Aaron Cook could get the last one to give the Phillies a long relief option.