Friday October 24th, 2008

The post-All-Star break resurgence of Brett Myers -- who over the past two seasons has gone from starter to closer to minor-league starter to starter once more -- amounted to perhaps the most important reason why the Phillies were able to compile a 40-26 second-half record and move into first place in the NL East for good with eight days left in the regular season. Myers had struggled mightily in his first 17 starts, losing nine of those and winning just three while posting a 5.84 ERA, and had in late June been banished to the minors to refine his mechanics. But he was a different pitcher when he returned nearly a month later. In fact, says manager Charlie Manuel, "He was almost like a different person."

His curveball was again among the game's best, and that made him exactly what the Phillies needed him to be: a legitimate No. 2 starter to follow ace Cole Hamels every fifth day. He went 7-4 with a 3.06 ERA in the second half and was, perhaps more importantly, consistent. Apart from one 10 earned-run aberration in his penultimate start, at Florida, he didn't pitch a bad game. That streak continued in Game 2 of the Division Series when he limited the Brewers to two runs in seven innings. Although Myers allowed five runs on six hits in his Game 2 NLCS start against the Dodgers, he won that one, too.

That NLCS start, however, came 13 days ago, thanks to the Phillies' speedy five-game sweep of the Dodgers -- and that unusually extended period of rest would prove to be a problem, which quickly became clear in Game 2 of the World Series. "Sometimes you get out there [and] your emotions are going to get in the way -- it's just how you control them," Myers had said on Wednesday; but emotions were not the problem for the sometimes-mercurial pitcher during Thursday's early innings. Feel was.

Myers was clearly rusty at the start of the Phillies' eventual 4-2 loss (Recap | Box Score). He wasn't deceiving anyone, as the Rays hit ball after ball on the screws, mostly right up the middle. He allowed the game's first two hitters, Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton, to reach base (on a walk and a hard single), and they both went on to score. The Rays continued to lock in on Myers in the second, a three-hit inning that culminated in another sharp single by Upton that drove in Dioner Navarro. The fourth inning began with singles from Cliff Floyd and Navarro -- both, again, scorched up the middle, suggesting that Myers was still fooling no one at that point. A safety squeeze by Jason Bartlett made the score 4-0, a lead that proved insurmountable.

After the game, Myers admitted that his long gap between starts impacted him early on -- although he also attributed the Rays' early outburst to the fact that he'd never faced them before and struggled to find the proper approach. Of his Van Winklean rest, he said, "It's part of the game. You have to overcome adversity when you're pitching, you have to make adjustments out there."

Myers began to look like his old self -- or at least, the version that pitched after the All-Star Game -- starting in the fifth inning (he retired 9 of 10 batters from the top of the fifth until he was pulled before the bottom of the eighth). "He definitely settled down," said Upton. "I think we looked up in the sixth and he still had [thrown] only 60 pitches. It could have gotten out of hand, but he kept his composure and held us to just four runs." By then, though, as Myers said afterward, "It was a little too late."

In sum, Myers (7 IP, 3 ER) pitched well enough to contend for his third win of this postseason, had the Phillies' offense not failed. After going 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position in Game 1, they were 1-for-15 in Game 2 -- that one hit a Shane Victorino infield single. They had a man in scoring position in every inning but the first and eighth -- but scored only two runs. You might say they capitalized less than e e cummings.

"I'm concerned about us hitting with guys on base," said Manuel. "It looks like, at times, we might be trying a little too hard. But we can fix that."

Indeed, even though Tropicana Field fans -- postseason neophytes that they are -- started, with one out in the top of the eighth, perhaps the most premature "Nah-nah-nah-nah ... nah-nah-nah-nah ... hey-hey-hey ... goodbye" chant in the history of sports (the next batter, Eric Bruntlett, gave the mohawked masses a good dose of karma by driving one out of the park for Philadelphia's first run), the Phillies still have at least two significant positives to draw from Game 2. Any team would count as a blessing a split in a two-game series in which they went 1-for-28 (that's .036, for those without a calculator handy) with runners in scoring position. And Myers' next start, which is scheduled for Game 6, will come on just five days' rest.

He'll only make that start if there is a Game 6, which would be the World Series' first since 2003. After an evenly played first two games, it certainly looks like we're headed there, and two things seem clear: The Phillies will do better than .036, and Myers will begin the game feeling not like a man who's just emerged from a coma, but from a restorative night's sleep.

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