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Howard, Phillies eager to kick off spring games

Grapefruit League slate starts with opener against Blue Jays

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard has become a superstitious man.

How does he feel?

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard has become a superstitious man.

How does he feel?

"Are you trying to jinx me?" he said following Tuesday's intrasquad game at Bright House Field. "I don't like answering those questions because I just like going out here and trying to do my thing. I know you guys have a job as far as asking me the same thing every year. But this year I really don't want to answer them. I feel fine. It's like that whole superstition thing."

He went 2-for-2 with a single, home run and two RBIs, singling against left-hander Jesse Biddle and homering against left-hander Cesar Jimenez. It is two at-bats in a glorified six-inning scrimmage, so no conclusions can be made following one afternoon of work. Howard seemed healthy and hit left-handers well last spring, too. But as the Phillies open their Grapefruit League season Wednesday afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV) against the Blue Jays, the Phillies are hopeful a healthy Howard breathes life into an offense that ranked as one of the worst in baseball last season.

"It's just a work in progress," Howard said. "It's all about trying to progress all through Spring Training, work on different things, see different things, feel different things early on. And then when the games begin, just let it go."

Howard has talked with Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg about facing plenty of left-handed pitching this spring. Howard has a .604 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against left-handers from 2011-13, which is 249th out of 269 qualifying hitters. That must improve.

But Howard is only one player to watch this spring. There will be plenty of competition. There are three or four jobs available in the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman are sure things for the bullpen with right-hander Brad Lincoln having an inside track on a spot because he is out of options. There are bench jobs to be won with Bobby Abreu potentially resurrecting his career as a left-handed bat off the bench. The Phillies could need a fifth starter with Cole Hamels expected to open the season on the disabled list. Will Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez show anything this spring? And Maikel Franco would love to give Cody Asche a battle at third base.

The Phillies are eager to get things going. They have plenty to prove, and they seem to be responding well to Sandberg's first camp as manager.

"I've been to five different camps," Phillies right fielder Marlon Byrd said. "It's very organized. Yes, station to station, no sitting around, nobody has to figure out where they're going. He came in prepared."

"The camp itself has been great," Howard said. "The workload has been a lot more than it's been in years past, but we're going out, getting work in and guys are definitely sweating a lot more."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for

Philadelphia Phillies, Cody Asche, Marlon Byrd, Maikel Franco, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Ryan Howard