CLEARWATER, Fla. — Gabe Kapler looked like a member of the Knothole Gang as he peered through a hole in a fence Wednesday morning and gazed at his new pitcher. Three pitchers were throwing on the other side of that fence, but the manager’s attention was on the righthander in the middle: Jake Arrieta.
Arrieta threw a bullpen session — the $75 million pitcher’s first baseball activity since joining the Phillies — on the other side of that fence. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz and assistant Chris Young stood near the mound. More than 50 minor-leaguers watched from afar. Front-office members stood near a wall.
For Arrieta, it was just a minor test, a necessary hurdle to pass before being ready to start the season. For the crowd, it was a happening.
“He looks great to me,” Kranitz said. “He always stays in shape. There’s no question about that. What I was looking for today was how the ball was coming out of his hand — it was coming out great. I didn’t expect anything different, but it’s always great to get eyes on him.
Arrieta plans to pitch Saturday in a minor-league game at the Carpenter Complex. He threw roughly 40 pitches Wednesday and should throw 50 on Saturday. He would then have time to pitch in two Grapefruit League games before the team leaves Florida. Arrieta is confident he will be ready to start the season on time despite not signing until a month into spring training.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any issue with getting extended quickly,” Arrieta said. “I was able to build up throughout the offseason to a point where I feel like I could slide in and be ready for the start of the season. That’s the game plan for right now, and I plan for that to go very well.”
The other Phillies pitchers had thrown their first bullpen sessions four weeks ago when they arrived at camp. Arrieta was left without a team as the free-agent market moved slowly, and he threw on his own every two or three days. Kranitz said Arrieta looks like a pitcher who has been throwing. He looks strong. The next step will be facing hitters.
“It felt good to have baseball pants back on,” Arrieta said. “To be in uniform and throw my first bullpen with the club is really nice. I had Zach Eflin and Adam Morgan alongside me, and it’s good to be with the guys doing some baseball activity again with the squad. Good start.”
Arrieta fired all of his pitches Wednesday, mixing his fastball with a handful of breaking balls, change-ups, cutters, and sliders. The Phillies will play a game Saturday at Spectrum Field around the time that Arrieta faces minor-league opposition just outside the left-field wall. The minor-league game will allow the Phillies to control the situation as the pitcher faces hitters for the first time in five months.
Arrieta can expect it to be another happening. The bleachers, usually dotted with fans for minor-league games, will be filled. It will be another test, a bit steeper than the one he faced Wednesday, as he gears up for the start of the season. If Arrieta is ready, his first start might be just two weeks away, on March 30 in Atlanta.
“Trying to push things along quickly based on the circumstances,” Arrieta said. “But I’m a pretty quick learner. Things are going well. Arm feels great. Body’s healthy. That’s exactly where we need to be at this point.”
Arrieta said he’s working on a gift for Ben Lively, who gave Arrieta his No. 49 jersey. Arrieta asked him what kind of watch he wanted. Lively, an avid fisherman, said he wants a boat. “Maybe a little Jon Boat, something small, a little two-seater,” Arrieta said. “I thought that was pretty funny.” … The Phillies will be off Thursday.