On his last day in Florida, Gabe Kapler put the top down and took his new and improved lineup for a spin.
The Phillies manager used what figures to be his opening day lineup — minus starting pitcher Aaron Nola — for the team’s final spring-training game Monday.
The unit — with a little help from minor-leaguer Malvin Matos — pulled out a curtain-closing, 3-2, win over the Tampa Bay Rays at sun-splashed Spectrum Field. Matos, up for the day from minor-league camp, won it with a walk-off homer in the bottom of ninth and everybody left happy.
The new season starts Thursday when the Phillies host the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of 162. Nola, who finished third in National League Cy Young voting last season, will oppose right-hander Julio Teheran.
The Phillies added two former NL MVPs, a former NL hits leader and the best catcher in baseball this winter and expectations are high for this club that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2011, its last winning season.
Kapler had his game face on after Monday's spring finale.
“I think we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I think this team has a ton of potential, but we have to stay focused every single day.
“We have to come to the ballpark every day with a game plan of doing the little things right, running the bases hard and executing fundamentals. If we do that, we can do good things.”
The Phils will send Nick Pivetta to the mound in the second game of the series on Saturday. He will face rookie right-hander Bryse Wilson. Jake Arrieta will start Sunday night’s nationally televised game against another Atlanta rookie right-hander, Kyle Wright.
The Phillies will play their fourth game of the season Apr. 2 at Washington and send Zach Eflin to the mound. That should be a wild scene with Bryce Harper, the hood ornament on Kapler’s new and improved lineup, returning to the city in which he played for seven seasons.
Harper, a former NL MVP, anchored Kapler’s lineup in the No. 3 spot Monday. He will be right back there Thursday and could stay there all season as Kapler, with improved personnel, has said he’ll try to keep guys in consistent spots in the order this year.
Kapler’s sneak-peek lineup looked like this Monday:
Andrew McCutchen LF
Jean Segura SS
Bryce Harper LF
Rhys Hoskins 1B
J.T. Realmuto C
Odubel Herrera CF
Cesar Hernandez 2B
Maikel Franco 3B
Last season, Hernandez was the Phillies’ primary leadoff man and Franco often batted in the middle of the order. They significantly strengthen the bottom third of the order. Franco homered on Monday and Hernandez doubled.
Four of the top five spots in the batting order were occupied by newcomers, McCutchen, another former MVP, at the top followed by former NL hits champ Segura and Harper. Realmuto caught and hit fifth.
“It’s exciting,” Arrieta said of the lineup. “More than anything I think it puts a little fear into the opposition. I don’t know if you call it fear, it’s just maybe a little more preparation goes into facing a lineup like we have this year.
“With the guys we’ve got, there’s really not a break in our lineup. It’s going to be fun.”
Arrieta started Monday and struck out eight over six innings in his final spring tune-up. Pivetta pitched into the sixth inning in a minor-league game and struck out nine.
Over the weekend, Nola said: “We have a team to make the playoffs, but we still have to go out there and win and we still have to go out there and compete. Expectations are better than no expectations and that’s going to raise our game up, I believe.”
“Of course, I think we're a playoff team,” he said Monday. “You look at the team we had last year, we were borderline. We had our chances. Some youth, some inexperience, maybe some hangover from a tough series carried on to the next vs. the cliché of turning the page quick. This group is much better suited to deal with adversity.
“The Braves doing what they did to us last year in winning the division, not that there has to be a chip on our shoulder, but a lot of guys in here remember how it shook down for us, the way the season finished, and we don’t want that to happen again.”
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