FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s understandable that Scott Kingery didn’t handle the first bunt attempt he saw at spring training perfectly. It had been a while.
Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who is exceptionally fast, led off the second inning and dropped a bunt between Kingery, playing third base, and pitcher Aaron Nola. They converged, in silence. Finally, Kingery called for it. He had no play on Buxton.
“That one’s on me a little bit. I called it a little late,” Kingery admitted. “We kind of met in the middle. I called it at the last second. I should have seen that off the bat and called for it early.”
Kingery, the Phillies’ top prospect, is a natural second baseman, but the team is trying to expand his repertoire. He has played shortstop and outfield this spring, and he played third in four minor-league games last season, but he had not played third this spring.
As usual, Kingery didn’t make the same mistake twice. Zack Granite pushed a bunt at Kingery in the fifth. Kingery called it, charged it and made a perfect scoop-and-throw.
Kingery’s spring debut at third base was the marquee event in Kapler’s defensive carousel. He also put infielder Jesmuel Valentin in right field. Speedy outfielder Roman Quinn entered the game in the seventh at shortstop, where he has played a bit this spring, which moved shortstop J.P. Crawford to third base for the second time this spring and pushed Kingery to second.
The musical chairs did not affect Kingery’s swing. He collected two more hits and kicked his average up 14 points, to .378, which remains tops on the team. Nevertheless, he will start the season at triple-A Lehigh Valley, to maximize the Phillies’ long-term control over his career.
Before the game, Kapler asked Kingery if he’d like to continue to play positions other than second base over the final nine games of spring training, and Kingery asked for more time at third base and in the outfield.
“I love that they’re moving me around,” Kingery said.
And they love to do it. Kapler believes in defensive versatility.
“Based on his skill set, I think he could play, legitimately, anywhere on the diamond and be just fine,” Kapler said. “I don’t think there’s much that he can’t do on a baseball field, athletically.”
There’s a reason why Kingery is the top prospect.
Twins 4, Phillies 3
By the end of the second inning, Phillies No. 1 starter Aaron Nola had given up two runs, but he’d also stranded a runner at third to end each inning. He froze left-handed slugger Logan Morrison with a fastball to keep the first scoreless, then, after Ehire Adrianza’s two-run triple with no outs in the second, he found his curveball and his fastball gained some gas. Jason Castro fanned on a curve, the first of eight outs in a row. Nola survived five innings, surrendered those two runs on four hits and two walks. He struck out three.
“They had some pressure on me, but I was able to get out of it,” said Nola, who believes pitching out of jams in spring training can simulate in-season pressure. “You’re just going to have to grind through it.”
Nola remained 1-1 in his four starts and actually lowered his ERA by a half-point, to 4.50, over 77 pitches. He will make one more start this spring. Kapler was unsure if it will be an abbreviated start, though he did mention it would be “nice to be able to back him off.”
Enticing utility man Jesmuel Valentin took Nola off the hook in the seventh when he hit his third home run of the spring, which tied the game at 3. It also tied Valentin with Kingery for the team’s home-run lead.
Left-handed reliever Hobie Milner surrendered his only his second run of the spring in his nine appearances and Jake Thompson later gave up his first home run, in the eighth, but it was the difference in the game.
Kapler said the Phillies have not determined the next step for newcomer Jake Arrieta, who pitched a simulated game Saturday, though Arrieta could still be ready to pitch the first week of the season. However, Arrieta tweeted on Saturday to Inquirer sports editor Gary Potosky: “I’m ready now.”
Gary.. Gary.. Gary.. I’m ready now.
— Jake Arrieta (@JArrieta34) March 17, 2018
… After right-hander Jerad Eickhoff was examined by doctors in Philadelphia, the Phillies determined that his right lat strain is unrelated to the vascular issues that sidelined him last season. Eickhoff’s timetable to return (up to eight weeks) is unchanged. … Odubel Herrera made a spectacular catch at the wall in the right-center field power alley to end the seventh inning. His jump, route and timing all were superb. … Quinn singled and stole his third base of the spring, in the seventh.