CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Tony Gwynn Jr. has turned a potential opportunity with the Phillies into a legitimate one.
He has little more than a week to strengthen his case.
Gwynn signed a Minor League contract with the Phillies in December after spending the entire 2013 season with Triple-A Albuquerque, which is the top Dodgers affiliate. It is not the place the 31-year-old outfielder with parts of seven big league seasons wanted to be, but it happened. He hopes this year is decidedly different.
"It's more than nice," he said before Thursday's Grapefruit League game against the Blue Jays at Bright House Field. "It's a different situation."
Gwynn, who doubled, walked and singled in his first three plate appearances Thursday, is hitting .346 (9-for-26) with three doubles, one RBI, six walks, two stolen bases and a .500 on-base percentage. He is fighting for a bench job with outfielders John Mayberry Jr., Bobby Abreu, Darin Ruf and Clete Thomas.
Gwynn seemingly had been in a battle with Mayberry with their abilities to play all three outfield positions, but Ruf suffered a strained left oblique during batting practice Thursday in Kissimmee, Fla., against the Astros, which could remove one outfielder from the mix.
"I think that's his strength, his outfield defense at three outfield positions," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said of Gwynn. "I like what he's doing. When you're talking about a late-inning defensive guy, a big bunt late in the game, pinch-running and stealing a base, all those things. He can definitely play center field as a starter. He's doing a good job. He's fighting for a job."
Gwynn, who is a .305 hitter in 147 career pinch-hit plate appearances, said he is not stressing about it.
"Who knows?" he said. "It's always, who knows? No, it's not maddening. I'm at peace at this point. I know all I can do is put my best foot forward. That's all I can do. I don't make the decisions. I spent so many years worrying about things I can't control. I've gotten to the point now where I don't want to do it anymore. It's too stressful. There's just too much going on when you're trying to control things you absolutely have no control over. I go out, I put my work in, I put my best forward and I can live with the results. Push it out there and hopefully they like what they see."
Gwynn played through a sports hernia injury in 2012, when the Dodgers designated him for assignment, then outrighted him to Triple-A. He entered Spring Training last year knowing the odds were against him. The Dodgers not only had Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Eithier in the outfield, they had Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston as the likely extras, with Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig waiting in the wings.
"You saw what was going on," Gwynn said. "You already had three All-Star outfielders that were there besides Puig. I had to make a decision really quick at that point, whether or not I was going to sulk and feel sorry for myself or just prepare myself to go to Triple-A and work as hard as I could. That's what I did. I made that decision pretty early, probably in March. From there, it was just going down there and trying to get better."
It was not easy.
"I think it's natural for anybody who's got a few years of big league experience to say, 'What am I doing here? This isn't fair,'" Gwynn said. "But life isn't fair. You just try to cope and just try not to look at your circumstance. Just focus on the day-to-day grind and just try to keep getting better. Because ultimately I wasn't going to go anywhere if I didn't play well. That was my main objective."
Gwynn could play well the rest of the spring and still start in Triple-A Lehigh Valley, but the Phillies certainly could use somebody who can play good defense. Gwynn is seen as an upgrade over Mayberry in that department.
Gwynn can only continue to play and make his case.
"At the beginning of camp I wasn't swinging the bat that well," he said. "I was really uncomfortable at the plate, so I knew those things had to kind of stand out a little bit, whether it was playing defense, stealing a base, just playing the game right in general. Those things had to stand out. Now, as we've gotten into camp, I'm starting to feel better swinging a bat, and now I'm starting to put it all together to kind of push it out there for everybody to see."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.