got the starting nod for Toronto on Tuesday against his former team. (Charlie Niebergall/AP)
The call shook me out of bed at noon. I had gotten so used to the lush life of a baseball writer during the offseason that I had ditched my alarm clock and was sleeping half the day; sometimes, I couldn't remember which day of the week it was.
"Jaffe, baseball's back. Get to it," said the voice on the other end of the line. "Big one today between the Blue Jays and Phillies."
"It's…" I reached for my iPhone, rubbed the sleep from my eyes and glanced at the calendar. "…February 26? Isn't every major league team playing some intrasquad or Florida college?"
"I don't want to hear it, Jaffe. This is The Show. Grapefruit League. A rich tapestry of interwoven stories atop a perfect green blanket. Ryan Howard coming off a strong 2-for-2 start in an intrasquad game — is this the year he bounces back to MVP form? Marlon Byrd back with his original team. Ryne Sandberg imparting Hall of Fame-level knowledge to non-roster catchers. J.A. Happ versus Roberto Hernandez. Fifth starter spots on the line, with the ghost of Roy Halladay watching. John Gibbons says it's a big deal that Munenori Kawasaki is in spring training, unlike last year. Here, let me IM you the link…"
"IM me some coffee instead?" I groaned before the phone cut out. It was up to me to forage for the coffee myself. I caffeinated while watching the snow fall outside the window of my palatial estate in downtown Brooklyn, then flipped on the game. To my surprise, the contrast between the dreariness of yet another winter storm and the Florida sunshine quickened my pulse. I dusted off my sleeping laptop, pulled up stat pages and depth charts. I stopped short of checking in on the streaming PITCHf/x data and instead mimed my throwing motion a few times; I was ready enough.
Not much to complain about regarding the two managers' starting lineups. If the season opened today, most of these position players wouldn't be out of place, reflecting the lack of drama regarding job battles. The obvious exception in the DH slot of the home team Phillies:
Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona, buzzes through the first two hitters on four pitches, getting Reyes to fly out to Byrd in rightfield and Cabrera to ground out. He falls behind Bautista and throws a sinker that doesn't sink; Bautista, who hit 28 homers last year, launches one out of Bright House Field. It's a reminder of the gaudy 1.4 homers per nine that Hernandez yielded in his stint with the Rays, one that highlights his bleak outlook as a fringe fifth starter.
Hernandez falls behind Encarnacion as well. He slaps a 2-0 pitch over Rollins for a single, but gets Adam Lind to fly to Brown in left, ending the frame.
Happ gets into even bigger trouble. He yields a single up the middle to the fleet-footed Revere, who takes second on a pitch that clanks off Navarro's foot and squirts away, and follows it by walking Rollins. He whiffs Utley on a breaking ball, but quickly surrenders an RBI single to Howard (who says he can't hit lefties? Aside from his back-to-back .173 batting averages against them in 2012 and '13, I mean?). Byrd works deep into the at-bat before singling up the middle to plate Rollins. With Happ already at 21 pitches, pitching coach Pete Walker visits the mound, either to remind him that the Blue Jays have about 17 fifth-starter candidates or to settle him down.
It doesn't help much. Abreu, going on 40 years old and out of the majors last year but fresh off a strong Venezeulan Winter League season, goes down swinging at a changeup. Brown hits a two-strike single deep into the hole, one that Reyes can only eat, loading the bases and pushing Happ's pitch count past 30. He finally ends the misery by striking out Ruiz on his 37th pitch of the inning.
Lawrie clouts a Hernandez pitch off the top of the padding in centerfield for a double, confirming my suspicions that the hitters are ahead of the pitchers at this time of year, and that the 2007 version of Carmona isn't going to walk through that door. Rasmus follows by doubling over Revere's head, just short of the centerfield wall for an RBI double.
Navarro, the Jays' big free agent signing, begins his Toronto career inauspiciously, popping to shortstop, and Goins, the team's rookie second baseman, flies to center. At this point, I'm not sure Hernandez could generate a groundball if he had to, but he gets Reyes to ground to short.
Happ's labored first inning forces Gibbons to move his pitching lineup forward, so Todd Redmond — one of those 17 rotation candidates — enters to start the second. He quickly gets Asche on a grounder to first, then gets Revere to popup a bunt right back to him. By the time he gets Rollins to fly out to center, he's expended just seven pitches, and it doesn't take much to imagine Gibbons mentally shuffling his rotation pecking order.
With Hernandez's day mercifully over, 6-foot-7 reliever Phillipe Aumont, a Quebec native betraying his homeland, comes on for the Phils. He's sporting a remade delivery, according to the Phillies' TV booth (which now includes Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs). Apparently, he's still working out the kinks, as he walks both Cabrera and Bautista, prompting a visit from Ruiz. It must have helped, because Aumont brings a fastball in on Encarnacion's hands, and he pops foul to the sprinting Chooch.
Whatever lesson may have been imparted, it fails to stick. Aumont falls behind Lind 3-and-0 and two pitches later gets knocked off his feet by a sharp comebacker up the middle that brings home the Melkman. This prompts the first "he stayed within himself" comment from the play-by-play announcer regarding Lind's at-bat, a sign that the broadcasters are closer to game shape than the rest of us. As if on cue, Aumont handles a chopper by Lawrie that brings home another run, prompting a "nice piece of hitting" declaration from the booth. Utley and Howard nearly collide on Rasmus' popup before the second baseman claims it, but the Phillies, down 4-2, clearly have their backs to the wall.
With the threat of this contest turning into a replay of the fourth game of the 1993 World Series (won by Toronto, 15-14), Redmond retires Utley and then Howard, the latter on a wind-blown fly that challenges Cabrera's long-questionable navigational skills; he finally catches it with a lunge that may have threatened the integrity of his oblique muscles. He completes the afternoon's first 1-2-3 frame by getting Byrd to chase a breaking ball off the plate for strike three.
Cannon-fodder righty Jeff Manship, owner of a career 6.42 ERA in the bigs, takes over for Aumont and whiffs Navarro, then gets Goins grounding out; the booth coos over the high quality of his changeups, which have drawn Sandberg's attention this spring. Manship battles Reyes to a full count, then gets the star shortstop to flail at yet another change.
Two-time Tommy John recipient Kyle Drabek — a phormer Phillies prospect, incidentally — comes on to face Abreu, and yields a four-pitch walk as play-by-play man Tommy McCarthy dismisses him as "still a thrower, not a pitcher" and Stairs recounts a story of facing his farther, former NL Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. The younger Drabek quickly escapes, getting Brown to ground into a routine 4-6-3 double play and Ruiz to ground to short.
The Phillies regulars begin collecting their equipment and heading for the clubhouse, as Sandberg swaps out all but Asche, Brown and Manship. Semi-familiar faces take over: Tony Gwynn Jr. in center, Ronny Cedeno at short, Kevin Frandsen at second, Darin Ruf at first, Clete Thomas in right... the only mystery is Cameron Rupp at catcher, a 2010 third-round pick who passed through Double A and Triple A to get a brief cup of coffee in the majors in September.
Manship yields a leadoff single to Caberra, but undaunted by his unfamiliar teammates, escapes the frame by inducing Bautista to hit into a double play and striking out Encarnacion. Fantasy sleeper Jeff Manship, kids — don't tell me I never helped you win your league.
The parade of subs arrives for Toronto as wel. Chris Getz, Anthony Gose, Kawasaki (at the hot corner!), Dan "The Great Pumpkin" Johnson, Moises Sierra, Kevin Pillar (not to be confused with Kevin Millar) and Jonathan Diaz, a 28-year-old org player who took a detour to Pawtucket last year after seven years in Toronto's system, at shortstop. The prodigal son has returned.
After whiffing Asche, Drabek finds trouble by walking Gwynn in the contest's first second-generation matchup. Clearly, the Hall of Famer's success against the former Cy Young winner (.469/.480/.694 in 50 PA) instilled a lasting fear in the son. Drabek the younger then serves up an RBI double to Cedeno. After retiring Frandsen and walking Ruf, Drabek gets the hook, his rough afternoon done at 34 pitches.
Taking over is righty Neil Wagner, the kind of anonymous, garden-variety righty reliever of whom spring training naps are made. He keeps the action moving by striking out Thomas, cutting short any thoughts I had of dozing.
Back from his season-ending Biogenesis suspension and sporting a new uniform number (59), Antonio Bastardo takes over for the Phils. After retiring Steve Tolleson, who somehow slipped into the game when I wasn't typing, and then whiffing Kawasaki, he surrenders a wind-aided triple off the centerfield wall to Sierra, but he recovers to get Navarro on a lazy fly to center.
Abreu, who's been working counts since whiffle ball, extends Wagner — now working with catcher Josh Thole — to nine pitches in drawing his second walk of the day. He exits for pinch-runner Andres Blanco, and I find myself hoping that I'll see him again soon; I can't help but root for his comeback, as ill-suited as it may be to the Phillies' NL roster. It won't help his Hall of Fame case much, as good as his handsome batting line (.292/.396/.477) and his JAWS line (60.4 career WAR/41.5 peak/50.9 JAWS, good for 19th among rightfielders) may be.
As I review Abreu's credentials, both Brown and Rupp go down looking at strike three. Top prospect Maikel Franco, pinch-hitting for Asche, steps in, perhaps a portent of things to come in the Phillies' lineup later this year. This prompts the Blue Jays to counter with Chad Jenkins, a bipedal hominid who induces a forceout.
The names grow even less familiar. Somebody named Leandro Castro in left for the Phillies, and Kevin Munson — apparently a Rule 5 pick from the Diamondbacks — on the mound. Getz steps in and does the one thing he's particularly good at: bunting. He rolls one towards third, and the charging Franco barehands it but airmails it half a mile over Ruf's head and off the ball girl behind first base; Getz takes second on the rookie mistake.
A bunting drill threatens to break out, as Diaz lays down a sacrifice to send Getz to third. Pillar strikes out swinging at high cheese as the camera cuts to a sideline interview with a beaming Abreu, who recounts beginning his time with the Phillies back in 1998 and — breaking news — says he's still waiting for his pitch to hit. Meanwhile, Gose walks, and the skies open up, bringing a brief burst of rain. Amid the drizzle, Johnson flared out to shortstop; no home run heroics for him today.
At that, the tarp came out. The phone rang yet again, this time conveying a curt order: "Hit the showers, Jaffe."
My first day of exhibition season was done.