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Fifth starter competition wide open

Fifth starter competition wide open

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- During the decompressing period that followed Adam Eaton's first Grapefruit League outing of 2008, the right-hander flashed a wry smile.

Speaking about the self-described "hanging slider" that wound up a three-run homer to the Yankees' Shelley Duncan, and the two preceding pitches that landed for singles, Eaton paused and asked, "Can we have do-overs?"

Eaton may as well ask for a mulligan for the 2007 season, and he would welcome one if offered. His 6.29 ERA in 30 starts last season sent him into a competition for the fifth starter's job with Chad Durbin, J.D. Durbin, Travis Blackley and Kris Benson. While Eaton's salary ($7.6 million owed in '08) appears to give him the edge, he'll still have to earn it.

Five minutes into his first start, he and the Phillies were trailing, 3-0, in a game they'd eventually lose, 9-3. Along with nearly every pitcher this time of year, Eaton can't be consumed with results, as this is the time to work on mechanics, release points, locations and specific pitches.

However.

"I think [results] are important for everybody, to a certain extent," said Eaton, who threw 20 fastballs among his 30 pitches. "I took a lot of good things out of today. I felt comfortable. I felt like after the first inning, I made some adjustments on the breaking ball. I feel good about what I did, other than the three hits in the first inning."

Eaton said his right shoulder felt fine, a result of an intense offseason strengthening program, but his back has been bothering him. He's working out that issue as well, though he said it's too early for concern.

"That's just his first time out," manager Charlie Manuel said. "That's definitely forgiven. He's just starting. It looked like he was throwing pretty good, stuff-wise. He got the ball up a couple times and it hurt, but he's just getting started."

While Manuel acknowledged that Eaton has a firm lead in the contest -- "I'd say Adam has the inside track, but let's see who pitches good" -- the other contenders can't be ignored. J.D. Durbin made his pitch Friday in Bradenton, Fla., working two innings and allowing two runs. Chad Durbin followed Eaton on Saturday and struck out three in his two innings, but he surrendered two runs on three hits.

The trio has a combined ERA of 10.50, separating no one from the field.

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"That's more for management side of things, more for [the media], and more for the fans and stuff like that," Chad Durbin said. "We're trying to get where we need to be and not worry about outside variables. The other stuff will come into play."

Durbin, who signed a one-year, $900,000 contract, can relieve, something he did for the Tigers last season. The righty made 19 starts and 17 relief appearances for Jim Leyland, and could fill a similar role for the Phillies.

"Whatever they need," Durbin said. "They pay the money and they get the right to tell you what to do. I want to be as flexible as I can for them. If the role is going to be defined early as one thing, then develops into something else later on, you have to be open to that."

Considering the Phillies used a franchise-record 28 pitchers last season, Durbin will see plenty of innings. He tossed 99 2/3 of his 127 2/3 innings as a starter, and 28 out of the bullpen.

Either choice is fine with him.

"They're trying to make the team better and that trumps everything," Durbin said. "Unfortunately, Murphy's Law of baseball works that if something is going wrong, it will, and it catches you off guard. You have to be ready for anything. The phone may ring at any time."

At some point, Manuel will make his selection. Eaton insists that he's given little thought to the many starting candidates in camp.

"It makes our team stronger," Eaton said. "We got a bunch of pitchers in camp. We all should be looking at that. I think I've established myself as a big leaguer. I'm getting paid extremely handsomely, probably more than I'm worth -- but everyone is not worth what they're getting paid. If you don't like the competition, what are you doing here?"

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }