CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In Kris Benson's mind, there were 43,000 fans.

Really, only a handful of spectators -- including his wife, Anna, members of the Phillies' front office and Minor Leaguers assigned to watch and learn from observing Benson and opposing pitcher Jamie Moyer -- braved a breezy Saturday afternoon at Bright House Field for Benson's first game action since Sept. 27, 2006.

The quiet, sunny afternoon was interrupted only by the popping of mitts behind home plate and the occasional crack of the bat or catcher chatter. Benson smoothly completed his 45-pitch, 17-batter outing that spanned three-plus innings. He surrendered three hits, a walk and struck out one.

"It felt natural to be back out there," Benson said. "It didn't feel like I missed a whole season. I'm sure it'll be different once I take a Major League mound, but it felt fine out there on a game mound."

When that happens remains the intriguing question of the spring. While Benson insists that he's "a week behind" the other pitchers, and remains optimistic of being ready for Opening Day, the Phillies keep a more realistic late April or early May timetable.

"The word optimistic fits off what we saw today," assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said. "There was crispness to all his pitches. He was around the strike zone well for his first time back facing hitters in a long time. Overall, it was a very positive outing and a good step."

Most of Benson's fastballs were clocked at 86 to 88 mph, and he threw curves, sliders, sinkers, changeups and two- and four-seam fastballs. His command drew positive remarks, but his velocity needs to improve by three mph.

When that comes, he'll be good to go. The next short-term test for the 33-year-old is seeing how stiff his right shoulder feels Sunday. Assuming no setbacks, he could throw a bullpen session Monday and pitch again on Wednesday.

Nearly a year removed from surgery, Benson feels close to being ready to contribute. While Benson wants to return sooner rather than later, the Phillies also must be patient, regardless of need.

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The wide-open race for the fifth starter's job took an intriguing turn this week. Righty Adam Eaton, the front-runner who has been struggling, revealed that he's been dealing with a sore lower back. He had an MRI and CAT scan performed Saturday morning, and the results should be available Sunday. The right-hander said he hopes to throw at Bright House Field on Tuesday's off-day, on his normally scheduled fifth day.

"It was pretty stiff [Friday], but today, it feels better," Eaton said. "It's tough. The back is kind of the pillar, not a fringe benefit. If there's something wrong with that, it kind of transpires to the arm, because the ball won't go where I want it to."

Lefty Travis Blackley, a Rule 5 Draft pick in competition for that spot, worked 1 2/3 innings against the Indians on Saturday and surrendered five runs on four hits and four walks. He had worked six scoreless relief innings before struggling against Cleveland. Chad Durbin has allowed four runs in five innings, while J.D. Durbin has given up five runs over six innings.

"I'm pitching for everybody right now, but I don't think the Indians will pick me up after today," Blackley said. "If that's the only bad one for the Spring Training, I'll be happy. If you look back and see seven runs given up and five were today, I'm fine with that."

Benson, a former No. 1 overall pick in 1996 -- Eaton was taken 11th that year -- represents an exciting option. With rotation filled with question marks (Can Cole Hamels stay healthy? Can Brett Myers make the transition? Can Kyle Kendrick repeat last year's success? Can Moyer fend off Father Time?), Benson's veteran savvy would be a welcome addition.

This assumes he can take the next step.

"The biggest thing is going to be how he feels [Sunday]," Phillies athletic trainer Scott Sheridan. "He seemed alright today. It didn't look like he fatigued. We want him to be on a five-day rotation. For me, it's keeping him on a schedule. He'll pitch a day, have a down day, have a bullpen day."

Then, a day to join the Phillies' rotation.

"It's coming, it's coming," Benson said. "I felt fine today. I could tell from the reaction of the hitters that the ball is live and had a little giddy-up at the end. The arm strength will continue to come. I've been here for 2 1/2 weeks and made a lot of progress. It's going to progress every outing."