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Angling for rotation, Lively freezes Stanton

Young righty among a talented group vying for fifth spot
Special to MLB.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Right-hander Ben Lively is making a very good case to join -- and stay in -- the Philadelphia rotation in 2018.

Lively made his latest argument on Thursday in a 7-6 win over the Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field, pitching better than his line -- five hits, three earned runs over four innings -- indicated.

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Right-hander Ben Lively is making a very good case to join -- and stay in -- the Philadelphia rotation in 2018.

Lively made his latest argument on Thursday in a 7-6 win over the Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field, pitching better than his line -- five hits, three earned runs over four innings -- indicated.

View Full Game Coverage

Lively allowed an infield single to Aaron Hicks to lead off the game but was able to retire the next seven batters he faced, and struck out Giancarlo Stanton with a sharp slider to leave Hicks stranded in scoring position. Lively wasn't afraid to go right after the Yankees' big sluggers, including Aaron Judge.

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"I love it," Lively said. "I pitched against [Judge] a ton coming up. ... It's always fun to throw against guys like him and Stanton. You gear up and get ready to go."

It wasn't until the fourth inning that Lively ran out of steam. With two outs and a man on, Didi Gregorius ended Lively's shutout with a two-run homer that just cleared the wall in right-center. The next batter, Brandon Drury, doubled and would later score after Erik Kratz singled off the glove of first baseman Ryan Flaherty. Prior to that inning, Lively had not allowed a run all spring.

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"In that last inning, a couple of those four-seamers came back, and they barreled it," Lively said. "Can't do anything about that. It was two pitches. That's baseball."

The 25-year-old is coming off a solid rookie campaign in which he went 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA in 15 starts. His 10 quality starts -- including the Phillies' only complete game in 2017 -- tied for sixth in the Majors among first-year starters. Despite the initial success, he found himself shuttling between Triple-A Lehigh Valley and the Majors all season, recalled and demoted on four separate occasions.

First-year manager Gabe Kapler has been impressed, especially with how Lively and Zach Eflin, the two front-runners for a rotation spot at this point, have responded to the challenge this spring.

Video: BAL@PHI: Eflin on spring start, return from injury

"I think they've both responded to the competition period beautifully," Kapler said. "We never said, 'You guys are competing for the fifth spot in the rotation.' That's more external. Internally, it's 'You guys are competing.' That's it. And they've both competed beautifully."

Lively and Eflin are part of a larger group that includes Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, Tom Eshelman and Drew Hutchison. All six have shown glimpses of being worthy of the final spot.

Barring a late-spring free-agent signing, the competition for the last spot in the rotation will heat up over the final half of the Grapefruit League schedule. The team continues to be linked to free-agent pitchers Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb. But even if no external options emerge, the Phillies are confident in what they've seen from the current group of pitchers who are vying for their shot.

"Everyone knew it was going to be a competition coming into Spring Training," Lively said. "You can't really think about it, because if you think about it, you'll mess up. I'm just going to stay with the same game plan, grind and keep going."

Leiter has been impressive this spring, not allowing an earned run on just three hits through his first three starts (seven innings). He has nine strikeouts and hasn't walked a batter. Thompson has allowed just one earned run through his first three outings. As non-roster invitees, Eshelman and Hutchison remain long shots, but both bring big league experience to the mix. The depth of the current group of possible starters also bodes well for the team's long-term success, even if they don't start the year on the big league roster.

Eflin, a former first-round pick by the Padres in 2012, likely has the biggest potential out of the group but could likely use some additional time at Triple-A after struggling in his 2017 debut. The 6-foot-6 righty allowed 44 earned runs in 64 1/3 innings. In 4 1/3 spring innings, he has allowed three earned runs while striking out five.

"All of these guys are dealing with challenges every day and are challenged to compete every day," Kapler said.

J. Scott Butherus is a contributor to MLB.com.

Philadelphia Phillies, Zach Eflin, Tom Eshelman, Drew Hutchison, Mark Leiter Jr., Ben Lively, Jake Thompson