Part 14: A Dust-Up at a Party

by Timothy Malcolm

Jonathan Papelbon squinted sharply toward home plate, his head stretched slightly ahead, the brim of his hat hanging low, hiding his eyes.

He pumped his head once, then twice. Then the wind whipped hard. Wrappers wound behind home plate. A cloud of dirt flew wildly past home plate. Papelbon set, the umpire yelled for time, and Papelbon looped an underhand fastball through the thick air. It was 6-2 Miami Marlins, ninth inning of the Phillies home opener. The dusting dutifully defined the Phillies’ futile beginning.

***

The 2012 regular season began at PNC Park, the sparkling gold and stone playplace for Pittsburgh baseball fans. Opening in 2002, PNC Park immediately earned the adulation of baseball purists and entertainment seekers alike. Its cozy features sit snug against the Allegheny River, while spectacular bridges span from the outfield backdrop. Fans can walk across the major centerfield bridge, the Clemente Bridge, before Pirates games. And thousands did on April 5, the first afternoon of American baseball, one kissed by a brilliant Midwestern sun.

This was the Phillies’ first win of the season, and for a short time, it would be the Phillies’ only win of the season. It’s because Roy Halladay stepped onto the rubber of PNC Park that afternoon – his third consecutive opening day start as a Phillie – and surgically set down Pirate after Pirate. This wasn’t a surprise. This was Roy Halladay.

Born in Colorado, marrying young and joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Halladay was drafted in 1995 by the Toronto Blue Jays. Quiet and calm, Halladay possessed a furious fastball that excited Radar guns and caused a stir in opposing clubhouses. It allowed him to climb the Toronto system until he debuted in 1998, nearly notching a no-hitter in his second major league start. But baseball caught up to his heater, and by 2000, Halladay was a quiet and calm broken man. Pushed deep into the Toronto minor leagues, Halladay hooked up with pitching guru Mel Queen, found Harvey Dorfman’s “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” and resurrected his career. Quiet and calm, Halladay adopted bite and sink, painted corners and finished off hitters with a cut fastball that excited pitching experts and caused a stir in his own clubhouse. By 2002 Halladay was reborn, beginning a masterful career in Toronto that ended nine years later. Quiet and calm, Halladay wanted to play with a contender, so the Jays shipped him to the Phillies, a team with two consecutive pennants and plenty of potential.

A Roy Halladay game might start shaky. His location is off a tick. Opposing hitters feast swiftly on the fastball. A run may score, but a run may not score. But most times, with runners on base in a perilous situation, the mechanics click, the lights switch and the puzzle is solved. The robot comes to life.

When he becomes a robot, Halladay is nearly unhittable. Maybe a batter waves his bat at a pitch and pokes a dying helicopter into the outfield. Usually, however, Halladay is deliberate, determined, dutiful and definite. The fastball whizzes into the Carlos Ruiz’s glove. The changeup swoops quick. The curve traces a perfect parabola. And the cutter darts across the plate, freezing the hitter until his blue face shatters. As some say, Halladay breaks faces. And when it’s over, Halladay stalks off the mound, lips tight, eyes heavy, steps strong and assured. It’s a march, a robotic march. Nobody is spared.

On April 5, with two runners on base in the first inning, the mechanics clicked, the light switched and the puzzle was solved. Halladay zoomed the ball in to the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, who dropped his bat onto it and grounded it squarely to Jimmy Rollins. He threw it to Freddy Galvis, who slid his foot across second base and fired the ball to Ty Wigginton. Double play. Inning over. The robot had come to life, and the Pirates would not get another hit.

The Phillies won, 1-0, thanks to an antsy slide by Wigginton, result of a Ruiz sacrifice fly. The Phillies barely flooded the basepaths, relying more on singles and bunts to discover their lone run. This would only start the problem.

***

The moment Ryan Howard limped to the grass of Citizens Bank Park, Charlie Manuel began his most challenging year of managing baseball. Confirmation of Howard’s ankle injury only solidified this fact, turning all eyes to the white-haired, wrinkly wombat wearing his winter jacket and pinstriped pants. Manuel had written the names Rollins, Victorino, Utley and Howard into lineups. He had written the names Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Martinez, Blanton, Happ, Worley, Oswalt and Myers onto pitching schedules. Sometimes he made pitching changes. Sometimes he brought hitters in during tense situations, and sometimes he substituted slower athletes for quicker athletes. In short, Charlie Manuel’s managing never made a large impact on Phillies games. Sure he’d screw up, and sure he’d prove correct, but it evened out, especially once Howard clouted a ball into the nether regions of a ballpark. But now there was no Howard. And there was no Utley. And now there was Galvis, Pierre, Nix and Wigginton. There was Qualls, Stutes, Bastardo and Herndon. Names that didn’t strike assurance. Names that didn’t fit like the winter jacket or pinstriped pants. This was an awkward crew, an uncomfortable job, a challenging season.

When presented with the challenge, Manuel conformed to safety. Pierre bunted. Rollins bunted. On April 8, after Pierre advanced to second on a wayward throw off a bunt, Manuel instructed Victorino to bunt. So a man who hit .288 in 2011 bunted Pierre to third and was thrown out. Rollins struck out, leaving Pierre at third. After intentionally walking Hunter Pence, Pirates pitcher James McDonald struck out Jim Thome, ending the inning and keeping Pierre at third. And on April 7, after Pence singled to open the ninth inning in a tie game, Manuel instructed Laynce Nix to bunt. So a man who only attempted two bunts in 2011 stuck out his bat, and popped the ball straight up. No advance, one out. The Phillies wouldn’t score then, either.

The Phillies would lose April 7, 2-1, in 10 innings, and they would lose April 8, 5-4, on the final at bat.

***

When Rich Gossage first blazed fastballs down the Bronx Broadway of Yankee Stadium, he ushered an era of ninth inning dominance that led to Tony LaRussa’s coining of the closer. That led to Mariano Rivera, the only true  legendary door slammer, but the template for every other team in Major League Baseball. The ethos continues to this day: There Has to Be a Closer.

On April 5, leading 1-0, Manuel finished Halladay at eight superb innings and brought Jonathan Papelbon into his first save situation as a Phillie. Within 10 minutes, he had converted, snatching the victory without a scrape. Two days later, tied 1-1 in the ninth inning, however, Manuel didn’t call Papelbon. He brought in Bastardo. And still tied 1-1 in the tenth inning, Manuel brought in Blanton, a starter.

Blanton allowed a triple, then the infield single that lost the game.

On April 6, leading 4-3 after a turbulent inning by Michael Stutes, Manuel called upon Kyle Kendrick to start the eighth inning. He promptly allowed a single, then recorded an out. A left-handed batter appeared, so Manuel called upon Bastardo. Walk. Strikeout. Single. Tie game. An inning later, tied 4-4, Manuel didn’t call Papelbon. He brought in Herndon. And he promptly allowed a double. Two outs later and he saw an escape hatch. Blocking it was McCutchen, by far the Pirates’ best hitter. Manuel decided Herndon should pitch to McCutchen.

After working the count full, McCutchen drove the ball deep to center field, the double that lost the game.

***

But on April 9, down 6-2 in the ninth inning to the Miami Marlins, there was Papelbon, kicking the loose dirt in the air, lobbing the ball high after being told to stop his windup. The wind whipped hard and the thousands of fans remaining covered their faces. But their faces had already been covered. This was terrible baseball.

Before this mess, Cole Hamels had surrendered two Omar Infante home runs. And, in the game’s most telling moment, he failed to telegraph a bunt play with rookie Freddy Galvis. The converted shortstop Galvis notched his first major league hit in the game, a pure two-run double near the right field corner. But when Galvis couldn’t match Hamels’ throw on a bunt play, boos reigned from the stands. But these boos weren’t directed at Galvis. They weren’t even directed at Hamels. The boos, funneling through the chilly wind, a wind more fitting for December than April, were directed at the whole spectacle. Four games into the 2012 season, and the fans had finally realized this wasn’t going to be 2011. It wouldn’t be too easy. There would be pain. There would be frustration.

But with pain and frustration comes a new realization: There can be underdogs. There was Galvis, and Wigginton, and Pierre, and Qualls. New names. The unbelievable could happen.

Two nights later, the unbelievable did happen.

Advertisements