ATLANTA - When the clubhouse doors swung open yesterday afternoon, one nameplate and jersey were conspicuously absent from the lockers lining the walls in the bowels of Turner Field. Brett Myers, as you may well know by now, accepted an option to Triple A Lehigh Valley, a move both the player and the club hope will give him the mental freedom to make some sorely needed changes to his game.
Myers (3-9, 5.84 ERA) allowed five runs in just two innings in his last start, on Friday against the Rangers. His ERA ranks 57th among NL starters with at least 60 innings pitched, and he has allowed the most home runs (24) in the league.
The club, at least in the words of general manager Pat Gillick, believes Myers needs to make some changes to improve his fastball location. While the velocity on his fastball isn't what it has been in the past, the Phillies believe it is still powerful enough to be effective, provided he locates his pitches.
As pitching coach Rich Dubee pointed out prior to yesterday's game, belt-high fastballs down the middle of the plate like the one Myers threw to Rangers leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler on Friday night are prone to being hit out of the park regardless of their speed.
"Velocity does give you a little chance for error, a little margin for error, but the difference between 92 [mph] and 90, 92 and 89, isn't that much," Dubee said. "So whether he is pitching 88 or 93, it's about being able to command the ball, and he hasn't been able to get down and away like he used to.
"Because he doesn't have the 93, he is trying to manufacture the 93. And all of a sudden he's trying to do more. And once you get in that position, your chances of locating that thing are very slim."
But attempting to make mechanical changes while also attempting to win major league ballgames can be like changing the oil on a car that is moving 60 mph, which is why the Phillies hope some time in Triple A will help. Manager Charlie Manuel at first said he expected Myers would be in the minors for "three or four starts," but declined to put a timetable on his return. Manuel, Dubee, and Gillick all left open the possibility that Myers could return to the team before the All-Star break.
His first start will come tonight in Allentown against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
"I think Rich [Dubee] has really diagnosed the problem and Brett has been slow to come around to really [incorporate] the suggestions into his wind up and into his delivery," Gillick said. "Hopefully not being at the major league level and not having the pressure to win, he can work on the things he needs to work on, which is as I said before, location on his fastball. If he learned to control his fastball, he can be back here really quickly."
Gillick disagreed with the assessment that optioning Myers is a "drastic" move. But it certainly is a surprising one.
Myers was unavailable for comment, but his agent said the decision to accept the option was born partly out of a feeling of responsibility for his rough start. The Phillies broached the subject with Myers Monday evening. Though he was hesitant at first, he informed the club early yesterday he would accept the move.
"We looked at the big picture," said Myers' agent Craig Landis. "It behooves everyone, Brett and the Phillies, to go down and pitch well."
There is no doubt that Myers' psyche has suffered as the losses have mounted. After his last start, he left the Ballpark at Arlington without speaking to reporters, the first time he has shunned the media all season.
"We thought it was the one chance to get him turned around, go down there and get him out of this environment," Dubee said. "Allow him to pitch stress free, allow him to get away from being under a microscope and having to win and supposedly being an ace and all that stuff. Just go down there and get his mind right and get his delivery right."
What remains to be seen is who will take Myers' spot in the rotation. Dubee said Cole Hamels will pitch tomorrow because it will allow him to make three starts before the All-Star break. The Phillies would like Jamie Moyer to be able to translate Monday's off day into an extra day of rest, which would indicate that the Phillies will have to plug someone in Friday's series opener against the Mets. Either way, they need someone to pitch Friday or Saturday, and Manuel said they will likely decide today on who that player will be.
One possibility is IronPigs lefthander J.A. Happ, who leads the International League with 104 strikeouts and is scheduled to pitch Thursday in Allentown. The Phillies have sounded hesitant to pull a player from the bullpen, where Chad Durbin and Ryan Madson have starting experience.
To fill Brett Myers' roster spot, the Phillies purchased the contract of lefthander R.J. Swindle from Triple A Lehigh Valley. A 24-year-old reliever, Swindle has allowed five runs in 23 1/3 innings for the IronPigs this season. He has also struck out 32 while walking five. But Charlie Manuel said after last night's 8-3 win the move does not mean Chad Durbin will be starting Friday. *