Monday May 11th, 2009

Anytime Phillies manager Charlie Manuel walks to the mound to summon a reliever, the outfielders converge in center. Jayson Werth walks over from right field and Raul Ibañez from left to join Shane Victorino. While passing the time for the pitcher to deliver his eight warmup tosses, the outfielders deliver about as many one-liners.

"We have really great, funny conversations during pitching changes," Ibañez said. "A lot of random things get brought up -- it's almost like an episode of Seinfeld."

On one condition: "As long as Victorino isn't miked" for television, noted Werth, "it's usually a pretty fun time."

For starters, Ibañez and Werth are avid watchers of infomercials. Though they declined to reveal what absurdities they've recently purchased for fear of giving an undue endorsement, it's not hard to imagine their homes are strewn with Snuggies, ShamWows and Swiffer SweeperVacs.

"We both agree that it's tough to watch an infomercial and not want to at least try it," Werth said with a laugh. "Maybe we're both suckers."

This offseason many thought sucker was an apt description of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, who appeared to whimsically charge $31.5 million to owner Bill Giles' credit card early in free agency to sign the 36-year-old Ibañez to a three-year deal. Considering last offseason's market, that was a lot of money for one player. Amaro clearly missed the window to call in the next 10 minutes and get a second player of equal or lesser value thrown in. It must have been one heck of a sales pitch. "Hi! Billy Mays here for Raul Ibañez. Gently used! Plenty of power!"

Ibañez seemed superfluous. The Phillies didn't need to spend more than $10 million per year on an outfielder, especially a third lefty power bat for their lineup, even if that player only became a full-time starter at age 30 ("Gently used!") and has averaged 22 homers and 97 RBIs since ("Plenty of power!"). The man Ibañez replaced, Pat Burrell, as well as another ex-Phillie, Bobby Abreu, both had comparable slugging numbers over the last five years, and they settled for contracts of two years, $16 million, and one year, $5 million, respectively.

But Ibañez's hot start has helped dispel the notion that he was an unnecessary purchase. Until Sunday he was leading the National League in slugging percentage (.655) and total bases (74), while batting .327 with nine home runs and 23 RBIs. And he has provided meaningful power, too, leading the majors with six homers from the seventh inning on. Should opponents start summoning more lefty relievers to face him in the late innings, Ibañez ought to be equipped for the challenge. He's a .267 career hitter against southpaws, and this year is batting .250 with one homer. And every lefty used against Ibañez is one fewer to face Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Some of the offensive luck may not last, as Ibañez's batting average on balls in play is .318 (a bit above the .296 league average) and his home run-to-fly ball ratio is 22.0 percent, more than double the 10 to 12 percent norm -- part of that is due to good fortune and the rest to the cozy confines of Citizens Bank Park.

One of the knocks on Ibañez was his defense, but he has had a renaissance on Philadelphia's south side. Using the ultimate zone rating, a measure of how many runs a player saves or costs his team defensively, Ibañez cost the Mariners nearly 34 runs the last two seasons. This season, however, he has saved nearly six runs for the Phillies, which ranks third among all major league outfielders, trailing only Jay Bruce and Mike Cameron. Ibañez has only average speed, but Victorino praises how observant his teammate is to tendencies and how well he uses the scouting reports. Ibañez's cerebral approach to fielding includes noting the cut of the grass to predict which way a ball is likely to skip.

"Raul's a winner," Werth said of Ibañez, whose Mariner teams averaged only 72 wins per game. "That's really tough to say about somebody who's played for teams that haven't won. He wants to win, he wants to be good and he wants to do good things."

Victorino said it's "weird" that Ibañez didn't have more national recognition in Seattle. Howard resorted to a word-of-mouth scouting report of Ibañez.

"My friends I talked to around the league all said he was great teammate and that he absolutely rakes," Howard said.

Burrell, a former No. 1 overall pick who played nine years in Philadelphia and hit 253 home runs with the club, was a "big clubhouse presence" and the club's "unwritten captain," according to Werth. Recognizing that, Ibañez says trying to replace a fan favorite like Burrell would be "foolish," so he's instead tried to "bring the best version of myself to this team." And he's ably brought his bat and glove, too.

Ibañez got his first taste of the passion of Philadelphia fans during the World Series. A career American Leaguer, he never played in Philly, even in an interleague game, but watched the Series intently from his Seattle-area home to root for his old friend and teammate, Jamie Moyer.

"I was getting goose bumps through the television, which doesn't really happen, but the fans were so intense," he said.

During the Series, the fans even briefly booed Werth -- even though he led the club with a .444 average against the Rays -- after he got picked off second base in Game 3. But Werth didn't mind, as he understands it's a passionate and knowledgeable fan base.

"I should have gotten booed," he said, "and I expected to."

A hot start can turn any fan base into an appreciative one. Last week Ibañez struck out swinging at a curve ball that bounced in the dirt but sprinted out of the box hard to first base. The catcher threw him out, but as Ibañez walked back to the dugout, upset at his strikeout, he heard a number of fans clapping and shouting encouragement like, "Way to hustle!"

When three of your four infielders have either won an MP (Howard, Jimmy Rollins) or been a regular contender for the award (Utley), it's easy to overlook the outfield. But through Sunday the triumvirate of Ibañez, Victorino and Werth is collectively batting .297 with 19 homers and an OPS of .928, second only to the Many Ramirez-led (until recently) Dodgers. Add in the star-studded infield and the Phillies have scored the league's third-most runs -- welcome offense, considering Philadelphia is the only team in the majors not to win a game while scoring fewer than five runs.

Victorino started to get more attention during last year's postseason run as the Flyin' Hawaiian (of course, stealing 36 bases and winning a Gold Glove help, too). He and Werth first shared an outfield in 2004, when both played for the Las Vegas 51, the Triple-A affiliate for the Dodgers. At the time Victorino was just learning to switch-hit, and he struggled at the plate, batting .235. But Werth says he immediately noticed what a good defender Victorino was and projected a bright future for the then-23-year-old once he had more experience swinging from both sides of the plate.

The Dodgers, however, disagreed, leaving Victorino unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and allowing the Phillies to snatch him.

"The fact that the Dodgers organization just totally gave up on him was really unbelievable to me," Werth said, before pausing and adding, "but then, two years later, they gave up on me, too."

Los Angeles declined to tender Werth a contract in December 2006 after the outfielder's long bout rehabbing a wrist injury, thereby granting him free agency. Since joining the Phillies, Werth has established himself as the team's every-day right fielder after last year's 20-20 season.

While Victorino and Werth continue to improve, it's Ibañez who is the Phillies' breakout player, even if he won't call attention to himself. Rollins says Ibañez is almost too nice and apologetic but adds that his new teammates is a "lot of fun" and an "adventure." Asked to elaborate, Rollins merely laughs, shakes his head and, after long pause, cryptically repeats himself with a sly smile, "He's an adventure."

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