NEW YORK - When Chan Ho Park was pitching for the fifth spot in the Phillies' starting rotation this March, he was focused, aggressive, and dominant.
"Looks like he's trying to show us that he wants that job," manager Charlie Manuel said then with an admiring chuckle. In the weeks since, Manuel could only shrug and shake his head while trying to diagnose Park's problems, observing that the pitcher's confidence was mysteriously gone.
In last night's 1-0 loss to the New York Mets, Park seemed to rediscover whatever he had lost. He allowed only one hit and no runs in six innings, and bought more time in his current job.
Although a Pedro Feliz error in the seventh inning cost the Phillies an unearned run and the game against a dominant Johan Santana, the team finally enjoyed an excellent performance from a starting pitcher.
"He pitched a heck of a game," Manuel said. "He was aggressive. . . . He showed he's capable of pitching a good game for us."
The Phillies never said definitively if Park would lose his spot in the rotation with a poor performance last night, but they did not deny the possibility.
The 35-year-old righthander was 0-1 with an 8.57 earned run average through his first five starts, and admitted to losing confidence. "I was a little embarrassed, and not too aggressive," he said.
Since his last start, a 7-4 loss to the Mets on Friday, Park made several adjustments. He decided to throw more four-seam fastballs because the Mets displayed an ability to hit his sinking two-seam fastball. He improved his slider, the pitch he had the worst command of, by tinkering with his grip in the bullpen.
He also watched closely last night as Santana struck out 10 Phillies in seven scoreless innings. "Sometimes you pitch against good pitchers and you learn something during the game," said Park, who did not allow a hit until Daniel Murphy doubled with two out in the fifth. "Santana pitched very aggressive, threw a lot of strikes, just like I did today. We both pitched well; they had better luck."
The bad luck came in the form of Feliz's error and Jayson Werth's hesitation in the seventh. With Chad Durbin pitching and Carlos Delgado on first, Fernando Tatis grounded to Feliz, and the normally stellar third baseman threw the ball into right field. Werth fielded the errant throw, but he underestimated Delgado's chance of scoring and double-clutched the ball in his glove. The extra time allowed the runner to dash home ahead of Werth's throw.
"I didn't pick up the play right away," Werth said of his start-and-stop misjudgment. "I got called for traveling."
"We didn't play good defense," said Manuel of the Phils, who lead the majors in fielding percentage. "At the same time, every now and then your defense is going to play like that."
The manager then shrugged, not overly upset that his team lost a close game to a dominant pitcher. Park, too, conceded that despite the loss, he was relieved to show improvement. "When you have a good outing, there are a lot of good memories there, so that will help," he said.