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Ryno, Phillies look to future after opening series

Manager shows he is not afraid to tinker with lineup, bullpen for best matchups

Ryno, Phillies look to future after opening series

CHICAGO -- It is a long season, regardless of the expectations or outcomes of the first three games of a 162-game regular-season campaign.

The first three games for the Phillies showed a few things, or at least gave fans something to watch in the coming days, weeks and months. The Phils had a chance to sweep the series against the Rangers at Globe Life Park, but they lost Tuesday and Wednesday in the bottom of the ninth inning.

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They were the types of losses that became too familiar last season, when Philadelphia dropped 89 games.

Nobody can be certain if this is more of the same or just a rocky beginning. Either way, here are a few things that stood out in Texas before the Phillies resume play Friday against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Making changes

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg is not beholden to the past, so he has no problem shaking up the lineup.

It actually started last season, when Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel. Some of his lineups last year could have been Sandberg getting a look at players as the organization evaluated for the future. However, there are no evaluations here. Sandberg is trying to win.

Sandberg bumped Ryan Howard from the cleanup spot Tuesday against Rangers left-hander Martin Perez, ending Howard's streak of 665 consecutive starts in that position. Domonic Brown and Cody Asche also took a seat Tuesday as Sandberg studied platoon splits for both hitters and pitchers to set the lineup. Sandberg even used three designated hitters in the series (Brown, Chase Utley and Howard) and slotted Carlos Ruiz as low as seventh (Monday) and as high as second (Wednesday).

Based on a strong offensive showing in Monday's 14-10 victory over the Rangers, the Phils are tied for first in the National League with 19 runs. They scored five over the final two games of the series, but the team had a chance to win both games.

Sandberg recognizes there are going to be many more low-scoring games like Tuesday and Wednesday than high-scoring ones like Monday, so he also has placed an emphasis on defense. Brown, who is the team's weakest defensive outfielder, has played just eight of 27 innings in left field.

Look for Sandberg to continue to mix and match the lineup and defense to give his team any edge it can find.

Marlon Byrd

Speaking of defense, Byrd is a clear upgrade over anybody Philadelphia had in right field last season. There were balls hit to right in Texas that may have turned into a disaster in 2013.

Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon blew his first save of the season Wednesday, which continues a troubling trend. His 80.6 save percentage ranked 29th out of 32 qualifying closers last season, but it actually is much worse than that recently. Papelbon has blown eight of 24 save opportunities in 39 appearances since June 17. No other pitcher has more than six blown saves in that span.

Papelbon, who also has a 4.46 ERA and .302 opponents' average in that stretch, is pitching with the lowest velocity of his career. His fastball sat at 90-92 mph Wednesday, which has contributed to his lowered strikeout rate. Papelbonaveraged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings from 2007-12, but just 8.3 last season. In a situation like Wednesday, when he found himself in a jam, he could not blow his fastball by anybody for desperately needed swings and misses.

"Well, we'll see how it goes," Sandberg said when asked if he is concerned Wednesday's struggles are a continuation of troubles for the franchise's $50 million closer.

Sandberg said in the offseason he would not be afraid to platoon Howard at first base against lefties if he continued to struggle against them. He said he would do anything for the betterment of the team. Howard is going to get a long leash against lefties.

Papelbon is going to get a long leash, too. But how long if the struggles continue?

Howard

There has been plenty of focus on Howard, because the Phillies have said a healthy Howard means a nice bump in offensive production for the team.

Howard went 4-for-13 with one double, one home run, three RBIs, one walk and seven strikeouts against the Rangers, who featured two left-handed starting pitchers. Those two extra-base hits and three RBIs came against lefties, and they also came in big spots.

But Howard also struck out repeatedly on pitches low and away, making it difficult to gauge what might come in the future. The strikeouts need to drop, but he experienced some positive results. Perhaps the series will boost Howard's confidence going forward.

The bullpen

Papelbon has been discussed, but Sandberg showed his hand in Texas, where he used left-handers Jake Diekman, Antonio Bastardo and Mario Hollands and right-hander B.J. Rosenberg each twice in the three-game series against the Rangers.

"Those are the three or four guys that were solid through Spring Training," Sandberg said.

Right-handers Justin De Fratus, Brad Lincoln and Jeff Manship have not pitched. It is interesting because Lincoln was one of four locks to make the team entering camp after being acquiring in a trade with Toronto in December. De Fratus pitched in high-leverage situations last season and had a nice spring going before the flu bug got him.

"It might take a little time," Sandberg said about figuring out the bullpen. "I'm anxious to get them all out there and go from there. I'm anxious to still see Lincoln, Manship and De Fratus, then make some decisions and continue to use the whole bullpen."

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

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