Bailey making pitch to be Phillies closer

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Phillies pitcher Andrew Bailey.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - He was three more conquered batters closer to a goal that a 31-year-old survivor of shoulder surgery no longer considers paramount. Yes, Andrew Bailey said, everyone wants to be the closer. But surgery, which rendered the former rookie of the year and all-star reliever an afterthought, forces one to reassess his priorities.

"I felt good," Bailey said Tuesday after striking out the side for his fourth scoreless outing of the spring.

And, in the quest to find the next Phillies closer, that is an important step. David Hernandez, signed to a $3.9 million contract in the winter and the presumed closer before spring training began, may return to Grapefruit League action by the weekend. But questions about his health combined with Bailey's strong impression could make the decision easier.

With less than two weeks until the Phillies break camp, Bailey has a real shot at being the Phillies' closer.

The South Jersey native has not saved a game since 2013. He has thrown just 522/3 innings in the majors over the last four seasons.

"They signed me to compete," Bailey said, "and I feel like I've put myself in position to see what happens at the end of camp."

Pete Mackanin agrees. He has lauded Bailey's spring effort. The Phillies manager said Tuesday he will not use a closer by committee. He will choose one pitcher before March 30, when the Phillies depart Florida.

"We'd like to have somebody," Mackanin said. "We're going to have to decide the last week of spring training. We'll come up with somebody. Whoever it is may not be a premier closer, but you never know. He might be a good closer."

Well, Bailey was once that pitcher. It is difficult to remember how from 2009-10 he posted a 1.70 ERA in 115 games and converted 51 of 58 save opportunities. He is a different pitcher now; the margin is slimmer without a well-located fastball and effective curveball.

Doctors told Bailey to expect an 18- to 24-month recovery from his July 2013 shoulder surgery. The righthander had his first healthy offseason last winter. He trained in Connecticut, where he now lives.

"I feel like I'm ready to rock this year," Bailey said. "I've put the time in, and everything is healthy. It's all good."

On Tuesday, Bailey recorded his three strikeouts on three different pitches. The first was on a fastball, the second a curveball and the third a cutter. He has not walked a batter all spring.

To be sure, there are caveats. Bailey needed 17 pitches to strike out those three Rays batters, all of whom are slated to begin in the minors. His fastball velocity has hovered this spring in the low 90s, a tick or two lower than the 94 m.p.h. he averaged before the surgery. Bailey said he expects to gain a little more speed once the season starts.

The Phillies, of course, will use more than spring stats to evaluate their players. In the bullpen, where so many spots are available and little differentiates the myriad candidates, the Grapefruit League performances mean something.

Hernandez, 30, has not pitched in a Grapefruit League game since March 1. Toronto minor-leaguers battered him Tuesday in a minor-league appearance. Afterward, Hernandez said he still has stiffness in his right arm and attributed it to part of the recovery from Tommy John surgery he had in April 2014.

The Phillies signed Hernandez to be a setup man, but that was before they dealt Ken Giles to Houston. The man who opens the season as closer will have a tenuous hold on the job, as will just about every reliever in the makeshift bullpen that has yet to crystallize.

The Phillies have 20 relievers, 15 of them healthy, still in camp. Someone must emerge.

"We'd like to be able to say, 'This is our guy,' " Mackanin said. "We're still in the process of trying to figure that out. But Bailey looks awfully good. He has a great attitude. A good demeanor on the mound."

mgelb@philly.com

@MattGelb www.philly.com/philliesblog