Under Sandberg, a different spring training for Phillies

Ryne Sandberg watches from the dugout during an exhibition baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - On March 7, the Phillies rode a bus 55 miles from here to Sarasota for a spring-training game against the Baltimore Orioles. They did not so much play baseball that day as they committed it.

They struck out eight times. They were charged with two fielding errors and probably should have been charged with more. Their pitchers allowed 16 hits and walked six batters. They lost, 15-4. A circus calliope would have provided an appropriate soundtrack.

A team often chalks up such messy performances to the easygoing nature of spring training, especially a team with as many experienced players as the Phillies have. Each of the guys prepares himself in his own way for a long season, and only when the final score starts to matter do the veterans - those who have been through this process many times - buckle down.

Ryne Sandberg, the Phillies manager, apparently did not find this an acceptable excuse.

The next day, after the Phillies took their regular round of batting practice before a game against the Houston Astros, Sandberg kept his team on the field. He and bench coach Larry Bowa oversaw a drill in which the Phillies simulated in-game situations - first and second, one out, line-drive single to right field, what do you do? - and worked on relay throws, positioning, the most basic of fielding fundamentals. They carried out the drill for so long that the Astros had to take their batting practice in the cages near the Phillies clubhouse.

It is difficult to envision the avuncular Charlie Manuel - who won five division championships and a World Series during his eight-plus years as manager - putting the Phillies through such rigorous paces with the regular season still more than three weeks away.

Sandberg is a different story. After replacing Manuel in August, he had the Phillies doing extra infield work before every home game, a practice almost unheard of in the modern major leagues.

"I think it's very important," he said after the 15-4 spring-training loss. "Yesterday's game wasn't acceptable."

It's in these ways, some subtle, some obvious, that Sandberg has begun turning the Phillies in a new direction, after two listless seasons in which they missed the playoffs.

The conventional wisdom in evaluating the Phillies is that the organization is committed to wringing the last drops of excellence out of several aging players: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has also acquired several other older players - 36-year-old rightfielder Marlon Byrd and 37-year-old pitcher A.J. Burnett, to name two - to try to win another World Series before too many of these careers reach their expiration dates.

When those familiar members of the Phillies core were at their best, Manuel could manage them with a freer, more relaxed approach and still expect the Phillies to win more games than they lost. So far this spring, Sandberg has given little indication that he has that same expectation.

He is pushing the veterans in a manner they haven't been pushed in years: encouraging Howard to study more video to improve his hitting; praising the energy and urgency of younger players such as Freddy Galvis and Darin Ruf; hinting that, in his mind, everyone, no matter how accomplished, came to camp with a clean slate.

He had Rollins and Byrd, for instance, in the starting lineup Saturday night against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers - denying them the perk, often bestowed on established players, of avoiding a five-hour, round-trip bus ride.

"He's been completely different from Charlie from the outset," Rollins said. "He's pretty much a real quiet guy. He really is. Charlie was a get-in-your-face, jokester type of guy.

"We're still learning him. He's still learning us. [He and Manuel] are going to be completely different."

Rollins already has learned just how different. Sandberg recently benched him for three consecutive games after Rollins, when asked about the team's offensive struggles, told a reporter, "Who cares?"

The incident was the first flash point during Sandberg's seven months as manager, and it illustrated both his dissimilarity from Manuel and his need for a bit more seasoning.

Whereas Manuel, who occasionally benched Rollins for apathetic play, likely would have immediately met with him and explained his reasons for disciplining him, Sandberg waited more than two days to address the situation with Rollins. He allowed the issue to linger, to become an object of curiosity and media inquiry, when he didn't have to - just for the sake of sending a message.

Such missteps might seem minor, but even if Sandberg is right to cultivate some creative tension within the Phillies clubhouse, to snap the longest-tenured players out of complacency, he has to be careful that he doesn't lose their trust altogether.

Until they prove otherwise, those players represent the Phillies' best chance to turn this season into what would be a surprising success. Amaro has built the roster around them, has declined the opportunities to let go of the past and initiate a new era of Phillies baseball, and Sandberg has to live with this course of action for a while.

But that new era will begin eventually - maybe soon, if Ryne Sandberg gets his way - for he seems determined to drag the Phillies into it, one fielding drill, one batting-practice session, one decision at a time.