Phelps gets head start in facing live batters

TAMPA, Fla. -- The competition to serve as the Yankees' fifth starter was officially under way Thursday, when right-hander David Phelps got an early start to his spring by taking the mound against live hitters.

Phelps is among the Yankees hurlers who are slightly ahead of schedule with Grapefruit League games approaching, getting 30 pitches of work in as Francisco Cervelli and Bobby Wilson took their hacks.

"I pushed myself a little more in the offseason, so my arm is ready a little quicker during Spring Training because I'm trying to make an impression," Phelps said. "It helped me out last year, my arm felt fresh throughout the entire year. I did the same routine I did last year coming into camp."

Phelps and right-hander Ivan Nova are the leading candidates to grab the fifth spot in New York's rotation, sliding in behind the quartet of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes.

"They've both done some pretty good things, so I think it's a healthy competition," said manager Joe Girardi. "You can never have too many starters. We know that, because at some point, you're going to need more than five."

Nova is looking for a bounce-back season after going 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA in 28 starts and being left off the club's playoff rosters, admitting his confidence was shaken by second-half struggles.

"I'm not going to lie -- sometimes," Nova said. "It's frustrating when you're trying to do your job and you can't. I was putting my work in, I was working hard the whole year, and I don't get the results that I want. I've got to forget about last year, start this year fresh, and try to have a better year than the one I had last year."

After going 4-4 with a 3.44 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts) last season, Phelps proved versatile and could again serve in a variety of roles for the Yankees, but Girardi said the team projects Phelps as a starter in the long term.

"The biggest thing coming into this camp was just making sure my body felt good," Phelps said. "Whatever role they ask me to pitch in, I'm just going to try to do that to the best of my ability."