NEW YORK - It's been bandied about for a while now that Jamie Moyer's uniform number is more than just two random digits. That it represents a goal. The number is 50 and there's a sneaking suspicion that it's also an age at which he would like to still be pitching in the big leagues.
Although he's never said so out loud, that's 47 down and 3 to go for those keeping score at home.
Let's be honest, here. Going into spring training, the idea that Moyer might pitch 3 more years seemed preposterous. Heck, it seemed much more likely that he was already through. More cooked than a turkey left in the oven too long by a chef who got into the Thanksgiving wine a little too early. Thanks for everything and here's a nice parting gift on your way out the door.
He was coming off a winter during which he battled a succession of physical maladies. During the previous summer he pitched poorly enough to find himself banished to the bullpen. And then there was the fact that he's, you know, old.
In a career that has been built on disproving doubters and confounding the conventional wisdom time and time again, the first 2 months of this season might be Moyer's most miraculous renaissance yet.
That may seem to be a curious sentiment after the ancient lefthander gave up four runs on seven hits while needing 104 pitches to get through five innings. It may seem odd to contemplate after the Phillies were shellacked, 8-0, by the Mets at Citi Field.
But manager Charlie Manuel has a phrase he likes to use. "If you watch the game," he'll say. Meaning that if you're paying attention, things aren't always what they appear to be at first glance.
So let's take a closer look at Moyer's evening.
He gave up a leadoff single to shortstop Jose Reyes in the first inning. Reyes scored without another hit, on a sacrifice, a stolen base and an infield out. Granted, it was classic get-them-over-get-them-in baseball. But in the first inning? That's a little unconventional, to say the least. Especially since this wasn't Halladay vs. Santana. This was Moyer against journeyman knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
With one out in the second, Angel Pagan took a mighty hack and sent the ball spinning about 60 feet up the third-base line. Rod Barajas singled just inside third base. Pagan went to third and scored the only run Moyer allowed that inning when Jeff Francoeur followed with a single.
In the fourth, David Wright opened by lifting a routine fly to center. Shane Victorino lost it in the lights. Wright came around to score on a pair of fly balls.
This shouldn't be confused with an argument that Moyer was great last night. He wasn't. But when all is said and done, his 4.55 earned run average ranked in the middle of the rotation, behind Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels; ahead of Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick. Same with his 5-4 record.
The Phillies didn't lose because of him. They lost because the offense remains AWOL and the bullpen didn't hold the fort after he departed.
"I think Moyer pitched pretty good," the manager said. "I think if we had scored some runs it would have looked a lot different. He gave us a chance to win, for the most part."
Moyer shrugged. "That's baseball," he said. "It's an easy answer, but that's baseball. We're struggling a little bit offensively right now, so as a pitching staff we've got to pick them up the way they pick us up when we're not going well.
"You do what you can, you try not to panic, you try to right the ship."
Manuel also preaches the importance of focusing on today and letting tomorrow take care of itself. This is wise for anybody, even more so for a player whose professional career started in 1984.
But if he does makes it to a half-century, it will be an almost unthinkable feat. Satchel Paige, who spent his greatest years in the Negro Leagues, is generally conceded to have been the oldest pitcher ever at age 59. But he was used primarily out of the bullpen by the time he was admitted to the big leagues.
Some historians list Nick Altrock as pitching until he was 57. But while he had an at-bat in 1933, he hadn't actually pitched since 1924. And even then just two innings. By almost any realistic measure, Moyer has already surpassed him. Hoyt Wilhelm (49) and Phil Niekro (48) were knuckleballers. They almost have to be put in a separate category.
That leaves only Jack Quinn, who threw his last pitch when he was 50. But the last time he pitched more than 100 innings was 3 years earlier, with the Philadelphia A's.
Point: No matter what happens after this, what Moyer has already accomplished has been pretty impressive. The Phillies still have some pitching questions. At the moment, he's not one of them. And who would have imagined that back in February?
It remains mind-boggling to imagine Moyer on the mound in 2013, still tricking big-league hitters.
Then again, if he's proved anything in his long career, it's that you bet against him at your own risk. What he's done this season is only the latest example.