Trio competing to set up Gordon
Alfonseca, Madson, Geary battling for eighth-inning role
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Dragon Slayer, Mad Dog or G-Man. One will give the ball to Flash.The reliever collection of newcomer Antonio Alfonseca, Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary entered Spring Training as major components of Philadelphia's bullpen -- along with situational lefty Matt Smith -- and one could emerge as manager Charlie Manuel's eighth-inning setup man for closer Tom Gordon. Unless the Phillies add another arm by Opening Day, one will have to. Not a problem. "I like this team and I like the competition," Alfonseca said. "I'm here and I feel like I can pitch wherever they need me." "Whoever is pitching good will pitch the eighth," said Madson. "It doesn't matter who's out there. We have to get the job done. They're all important innings. I realize [in the earlier innings] you have more opportunities to score runs, but holding the game is more important." The Phillies would rather find one setup man, though the role could be performance-based. Alfonseca, 34, is intriguing because of late-inning experience. "You've got to love his experience," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "Anybody who's pitched in the ninth and has as many saves as he has -- a guy with 100 saves in the big leagues -- definitely has done the job in the ninth, so you've got to think he could do the job in the eighth for sure. If Antonio comes in and throws lights-out like we anticipate and he's getting three outs in the eighth, then he's got a real good chance of becoming the eighth-inning guy." Dubee ought to know about Alfonseca's ability as a closer. He spent four seasons as the Marlins pitching coach in 1998-2001, when Alfonseca recorded 102 of his 121 career saves. The right-hander is 30-35 with a 3.99 ERA in his 10-year career with the Marlins, Cubs, Braves and Rangers. While Geary emerged as a viable late-inning option last season, totaling a career-high 91 1/3 innings, and Madson succeeded as a reliever in 2004-05, Alfonseca has the track record. An intimidating specimen listed at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he reports that his velocity has returned to the 95-96 mph levels. Before feeling pain in his right elbow during the 2006 season, Alfonseca had just allowed two earned runs in his first 10 1/3 innings with the Rangers. He went on the disabled list May 10 and returned June 6, but was designated for assignment on June 9. A stint pitching for Azucareros in the Dominican Winter League opened some eyes, and the Marlins, Orioles and Phillies showed interest. Alfonseca likes the opportunity with Philadelphia. Though he's only seen Alfonseca throw once so far, Dubee said he noticed some of the same qualities and can see the veteran emerging as a key factor. "If he gets close to where he used to be, yeah," Dubee said. "I saw what I used to see when I was in Florida, when he saved 45 games. John Boles was the manager and used to call him the Dragon Slayer, and he took off for us and had a tremendous year." The Phils saw something too, and plucked him out of winter ball hoping for the best. In addition to throwing hard, Alfonseca relies heavily on a sinker, an asset in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
"I hope I can help," Alfonseca said. "Right now, I'm 100 percent. I feel happy [to be healthy]. Last year is over. This is a new year."Assuming there are no outside additions, Manuel said he'll go with the hot hand from among that group, and fill the middle innings from among Jim Ed Warden, Fabio Castro, Alfredo Simon and Anderson Garcia. "Ideally, you'd like to have a definite seventh- or eighth-inning guy, but the players determine that," Dubee said. "If Antonio comes in and is throwing lights out like we anticipate, he's got a real good chance of coming in [to pitch] the eighth." As maligned as the bullpen has been in the offseason "expert" evaluations of the Phillies, the relievers will hear none of it, especially Madson and Geary, who spent a good portion of the winter in the Philadelphia area. Madson's goal is to rack up the holds. "We know what our role is, and we know what we're capable of," Madson said. "Holds are going to be huge. You get 30 holds, you've done your job. That's my goal."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.