Part 13: Dawn

by Timothy Malcolm

But first …

John Mayberry has to reconfirm his offensive prowess. Hitting 15 home runs with a .513 slugging percentage in nearly 300 plate appearances in 2011, the 28-year-old outfielder slumped hard in spring training. Once an opening day starter, Mayberry was now looking out from the bench.

And Juan Pierre has to prove suitable. The veteran, signed on a whim, crept his way into the starting lineup through bunts and base-stealing attempts. Yet he made plenty outs in spring training, at the plate and on base.

And Ryan Howard has to return powerful as before. The ogre who fell flat in the division series is staring at a slog of a rehabilitation effort. Get him healthy and hitting by midsummer and there’s hope.

And Chase Utley has to return to half of his ability. Half of Utley is as good as most other second basemen in baseball. But the knees will cramp and creak, closer each afternoon to crumbling. Just keep him in one piece, as one half an Utley.

And Freddy Galvis has to hold the fort. Nobody needs the slick fielding shortstop to steal the show offensively. He merely must stand strong and take his licks. Field the grounders, hit the occasional single.

And Placido Polanco has to do the same. Don’t get hurt, there’s little there to back you up. Polanco has limped lame in the dog days of previous seasons. Now, in his final Phillie season, it’s time to suck it up.

And Ty Wigginton has to play big. Rope the random home run. Rush straight into ready tags at second base. Dive for the ball, stride a little wider for that bag.

And Jonathan Papelbon and Antonio Bastardo and Chad Qualls and Kyle Kendrick have to figure out a formula. They’ll get the ball in the seventh, maybe the eighth, and they’ll have to hold every slim lead. They’ll face McCutchen and Stanton and Wright and Sandoval, and they’ll have to stare them down and slap them away. Every time. Every single time.

And Joe Blanton and Vance Worley have to play bigger than the brains of critics. And Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have to stay healthy, stay outstanding and stay focused. Don’t let the pitiful offense push you down. Don’t let the one-run deficit prove daunting. Don’t let the letdown let you down.

That’s not too much, right?

***

On April 2, the parking lots surrounding Citizens Bank Park started to fill. In their long sleeves and jackets, folks in red, white and blue gulped their beers, swallowed their hot dogs and blasted tunes from their parked cars. One group was interrupted by a golf cart. The driver asked if the group wanted a ride to the ballpark, and at first the group declined. But then the group saw the driver. It was Cliff Lee.

Two exhibition games open Citizens Bank Park every season. This year the Phillies hosted the Pirates, the very team they would open the 2012 campaign against, but on the road. In game one, April 2, a lineup led by Pierre pushed ahead of the Pirates, 3-0. Blanton allowed two runs, and spring remnant Pat Misch allowed one more, but in the eighth, Galvis tripled and later scored. The Phillies won, 4-3, primarily employing an offense that emphasized the tenants of small ball: bunts, stolen bases, advancing grounders, sacrifice flies. An era that opened with the most prolific offense in Phillies history was suddenly personified by Juan Pierre, the poster boy of punching and running.

Game two of the exhibition swing resembled the older Phillies, bashing the ball about the Bank like banshees. Tied 2-2 in the fifth inning, Placido Polanco blasted a three-run home run. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence added run-scoring doubles. Mayberry also doubled. Carlos Ruiz doubled. Pete Orr doubled. Laynce Nix doubled. Galvis doubled. On the mound, Hamels held the Pirates without a run over four frames. Everything looked great.

***

Before the second exhibition game, the San Francisco Giants secured a long-term investment, inking pitcher Matt Cain to a six-year, $127.5 million contract.

Cain pitched well in 2011, keeping a 2.88 earned run average, striking out 179 hitters and walking 63. It was Cain’s third-consecutive outstanding season; overall, Cain had compiled six good seasons in his career, and at age 27, he could have strutted into free agency with agreeable prospects. But the Giants signed him, and they signed him to a fat pact, the kind that sets the bar for other pitchers his age and caliber.

Cole Hamels, age 28, approaching free agency without a new contract, is a better pitcher than Matt Cain.

***

The Phillies will file into Pittsburgh’s PNC Park on April 5, the first day of their 2012 campaign. They will play without Ryan Howard, without Chase Utley – without the core players that carried them over the hurdles and into the heavenly hold of championship glory. Now the team belongs to pitchers Halladay and Lee, acquisitions marking the gilded age, when anything was possible, when madness reigned, and madness was beautiful. The team belongs to Hunter Pence, the cagey new guy, and Jonathan Papelbon, the lunatic leading a lost boy bullpen. Jim Thome will get the grand ovations. Jimmy Rollins will receive the warm applause. And Juan Pierre, of all people, will stand in the box first. He will represent the beginning, the dawn of a new chapter in an aging era.

Critics aren’t comfortable with the Phillies, not like they were in 2011. Now there are just three aces, and beyond that an abyss of unknown quantities. Overseeing this abyss is Charlie Manuel, tasked with the toughest test of his career: He must guide a group of unknown quantities into the postseason and into a world championship. Anything less is failure, and it brings the harsh biting wind of autumn, the cold reality of winter, the certain death of the offseason. Worst of all, it brings the oncoming Rust Age. The beautiful madness will be no more.

On October 7, 2011, Ryan Howard crumbled to a ball of broken parts. The ogre, fallen. Chris Carpenter had laughed the aura out of Citizens Bank Park, leaving fans shellshocked, forced to face the offseason too soon, forced to face the cold reality too soon.

And now, reality. Necessity in every corner. Names like Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, Chad Qualls and Ty Wigginton. And the dawn. It has arrived. And maybe at dusk we will live a magenta sky, where the unbelievable really does occur.

But first … the Philadelphia Phillies have to play 162 games.

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