CLEARWATER, Fla. – Call it the crystal ball effect. Stare long enough at the 18-foot dirt circle in the middle of the diamond and a sleepy spring training game becomes something else entirely.
A pressure-packed pennant race.
Game One of the World Series.
Roy Halladay(notes) of the Philadelphia Philles and Jon Lester(notes) of the Boston Red Sox took turns standing on that dirt mound Monday. They are the best pitchers in the best starting rotations on what might be the best teams in baseball. And for the most part, they performed like it.
Halladay sawed off Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) so completely to begin the game that a shard from Ellsbury's bat tomahawked into the Red Sox dugout and struck a clubhouse attendant on the nose. He didn't give up a hit until David Ortiz(notes) singled with one out in the fourth inning and he surrendered a run only because catcher Brian Schneider(notes) couldn't hold a throw from right field. Halladay went 7 2/3 innings, threw 98 pitches and suggested he doesn't need more practice.
"I pitched the way I would a regular-season game," he said. "Same sequences, same pitches."
Lester didn't give up a hit until the fifth when, with two out, Halladay of all people, sprayed a cut fastball into right field for a single. Lester did labor in the sixth, giving up three runs before being lifted after 98 pitches. His off-speed offerings were especially effective, a sign that, like Halladay, he's ready for opening day.
The lesson? Spring training is too long. Exhibitions last the entire month of March only for starting pitchers to build stamina and to boost tourism revenues in Florida and Arizona. Halladay and Lester, like most starters, are stretched out enough by now. As for the economy, it's hard to argue that the long spring isn't a boon: A record 10,912 fans crammed into Bright House Field for the game, three more than a day earlier when the Phillies played host to the New York Yankees.
By this point, the hitters are locked in. Relief pitchers build up to only 40-50 pitches, so they are ready. Every game from now until opening day is just another opportunity for players to be injured unnecessarily.
Red Sox reserve outfielder Darnell McDonald(notes) jammed his right thumb in the third inning – the same thumb he'd had surgery on last October – and the Phillies had an even bigger scare. Center fielder Shane Victorino(notes) suffered an eye contusion and swollen jaw after slamming into left fielder Raul Ibanez(notes) chasing a fly ball in the fifth inning. Victorino lay motionless for what seemed like an eternity to Phillies fans, but finally jogged off on his own. Afterward, he said he was fine and that he didn't move for so long because his nose and mouth were bleeding. He'll be checked for concussion symptoms the next few days.
The Phillies have enough problems with injured position players. They signed Luis Castillo(notes), the second baseman released by the Mets a day earlier, in the hopes that he can play the position until the tendinitis in Chase Utley's(notes) right knee heals. Even if Castillo improves the bad attitude that led to his release and somehow regains a step on defense, he won't provide anywhere close to the offense of Utley, the best-hitting second baseman in the National League.
Veteran third baseman Placido Polanco(notes) has a hyper-extended elbow and is out for an undetermined period of time, although he's expected to return in time for opening day. And right field is perhaps the biggest question mark.
The Phillies opted not to re-sign Jayson Werth(notes), figuring touted youngster Domonic Brown(notes) was ready to take over. But Brown suffered a broken bone in his right hand more than two weeks ago and won't return until late April. And there's no guarantee he'll be the answer even when healthy: He began the spring 0 for 15 and batted .210 in 62 at-bats late last season.
Although Ben Francisco(notes) and John Mayberry(notes) have conducted a spirited battle to win the job, manager Charlie Manuel to express frustration over the weekend. "You just don't go out and give away a position," he said. "You've got to do something to be a big league player. I'm hoping somebody will give us some production."
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have no such lineup worries. Manager Terry Francona's biggest concern is whether to bat Ellsbury leadoff or ninth. Boston has a wealth of power and speed. The pitching staff is a different story. Getting bounce-back years from starters John Lackey(notes), Josh Beckett(notes) and Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes), and from closer Jonathan Papelbon(notes), will be crucial to the Red Sox reaching the playoffs.
Lester, new to the top of the rotation, is a known quantity. He's the only AL pitcher to win 15 or more games in each of the last three seasons. If there's a better pitcher in baseball, it's Halladay, and Lester admitted to admiring his work.
"It's always been fun watching him go through a lineup," Lester said. "You'd think he'd run out of ways to get you out, but somehow he manages to keep doing it."
In 11 days, Lester will make his first opening day start, on the road against the defending American League champion Texas Rangers, and Halladay will make his ninth opening day start, at home against the Houston Astros.
Official MLB statistics indicate that the run the Red Sox scored against Halladay was the first he's allowed all spring, in 18 2/3 innings. Actually, though, he gave up four runs five days ago to a lineup of Pittsburgh Pirates' minor leaguers. The Phillies had an off-day and wanted to keep their ace on his regular schedule.
"You want to stay as close to your routine as you can," Halladay said. "As long as I get my work in, I don't mind at all. It will count for real soon enough."
At this point, opening day can't come too soon for almost everybody.