CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Fans, Phillies officials, TV cameras and reporters had their sights set on a back field at the Carpenter Complex late Wednesday morning.
"Is this guy supposed to be good or something?" Rhys Hoskins shouted.
"What pitches does he have?" Brandon Marsh asked a teammate.
Top prospect Andrew Painter, competing for the fifth starter's job in the biggest battle of spring training, was set for a live batting practice session. Due up: Marsh, Kyle Schwarber and John Hicks, a backup catcher in camp with six years of big-league time.
Hitters are mostly tracking pitches and trying to get their timing down at this point in camp so the results of the at-bats don't mean much, but the highlight of the day was Schwarber homering to right off of Painter on a high breaking ball in his second at-bat. Prior to that, Painter flashed his high-90s fastball and it was just takes, swings-and-misses and a Marsh groundball between first and second base that he immediately declared would be a hit with the new infield shift rules.
"S**k it, Painter!" Schwarber yelled while hopping like Sammy Sosa to celebrate the homer. The Phillies' vets are having a lot of fun with the 19-year-old and all the attention he's receiving.
"He's a lot more mature than 19 years old," manager Rob Thomson said later in the day. "I thought he was fantastic. Stuff was there, he pounded the zone. The last pitch, he hung a breaking ball to Schwarber -- it actually wasn't hung, it was higher than hung -- and he just kinda tomahawked it.
"But I thought his reaction to that was really good and our players' reaction to him was really good. Guys were getting on him and he was taking it and laughing. He understands that there's going to be mistakes along the way. It bothers him but there's not a long-term reaction to that."
After taking him deep, Schwarber took Painter aside for a teaching moment. One of the benefits of being around the vets in spring training are these small moments of development.
Painter, the No. 5-ranked prospect in the game by Baseball America and No. 6 by MLB.com, is battling with Bailey Falter, Cristopher Sanchez, Nick Nelson, Michael Plassmeyer and Griff McGarry for the Phillies' fifth starter's job. Painter, Falter and Sanchez are probably the three likeliest candidates. Nelson and Plassmeyer will be first up when spring training games begin this weekend. Nelson will start Saturday in Clearwater against the Yankees (1:05 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia), while Plassmeyer starts in Lakeland against the Tigers. Painter's first appearance is tentatively set for the middle of next week.
"This is my third spring training coming up with these guys so I feel like I’m fighting for a spot every year," Falter said Wednesday. "It doesn’t really affect me like that. It’s not just me and Painter, we’ve got Cristopher Sanchez, we’ve got Nick Nelson, we’ve got Mick Abel, Griff McGarry, all these guys. It’s gonna be a friendly competition, I wish all these guys luck, but when it’s my time to go out there and go to work, we’ll see what happens."
Falter shouldn't be overlooked after his successful 2022 season. He was a key player for the Phillies in the second half as Zach Eflin and Zack Wheeler dealt with injuries, and from July 29 through September 18, Falter went 5-0 with a 2.45 ERA in seven starts. He stumbled late in September against the Braves but bounced right back with six shutout innings in his next start.
"I don’t really feel the pressure at all," Falter said. "The shortest offseason I’ve had but obviously for a good reason. Quick turnaround but arm feels good, body feels good. I think I only took about three weeks off back home and then was back in the gym.
"I think I feel better this year than I did last year. Everything’s right where it needs to be right now."
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