PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — For Mike Stutes, the spring represents a chance to prove himself again. He emerged as one of the Phillies' most-trusted relievers in 2011. He effectively throws only two pitches, a fastball and slider, and he rode them to success.
Near the end of the 2011 season, his slider did not have the same bite. He had a 4.44 ERA during the final two months. He came to camp the next spring with a shoulder hurting so much that throwing a slider was "basically" impossible.
The first two Rays — Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson — he faced in Friday's 3-2 Phillies loss whiffed on sliders.
"Now it's back to feeling strong again and I can really rip down it," Stutes said. "If nothing else, it gives me confidence out there knowing I can physically do it."
The start of Stutes' spring, from bullpen sessions to his first Grapefruit League appearance, was shaky. That was to be expected; 10 months of not seeing a hitter can do damage.
After his two strikeouts Friday, he threw a fastball in on Evan Longoria's hands for a grounder that Michael Young adeptly fielded. It was a clean, quick inning.
"The last two outings, I'm more comfortable out there," Stutes said. "Just being in the speed of the game, it took me a couple of times to be comfortable. I'm attacking the hitters instead of reacting to what they're doing. I'm back to where I was before. I'm trying to dictate what happens. That's a good feeling to have out there. It allows me to be more aggressive."
Pitching coach Rich Dubee said he expects to begin evaluating the bullpen competition next week. Phillippe Aumont and Jeremy Horst could have an advantage, leaving one spot to fill. If Stutes can recapture the stuff that made him effective for much of 2011, he will have a chance.
Stutes said his current slider feels like it did when he was summoned to the majors in early 2011. He knows there is little room for error to finish the spring with such stiff competition.
"It's impossible to not think about that stuff," Stutes said. "But I've really tried to not sit there and watch what everyone else is doing."
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