RAUL IBANEZ. Remember him? Pretty big deal around these parts back in the day. Just a year ago, to be exact. Seems longer than that, doesn't it?
Signed as a free agent. Quickly captured the skeptical hearts of the region's sometimes-crusty sporting public. It was a spontaneous combustion of home runs and standing ovations and runs batted in and chants of Raaaauuuul.
Was batting .312 with 22 homers and 59 RBI in 62 games when he went on the disabled list with what was described as a strained left groin on June 18. Voted into the starting lineup of his first All-Star Game. Wasn't the same after he came back from the disabled list: .232-12-34 in 72 games. Had surgery to repair a sports hernia shortly after the World Series.
Since then, he's sort of faded into the background. The emergence of Jayson Werth as a legitimate righthanded threat pushed Ibanez down in the batting order. He had a poor spring and got off to a slow start once the regular season opened. And with that, he became something of an afterthought. Most people didn't turn on him. They just treated him with benign neglect.
About the only time his name came up, it seemed, was when a representative of the militant wing of the fan base grumbled that the 38-year-old should be dumped to make room for Domonic Brown. And never mind that the Phillies' hottest prospect has never had an at-bat above Double A.
It's not true that what goes down must come up. But it can happen.
We all have short attention spans at times and, goodness knows, there's been plenty of other stuff to talk about around the Phillies this season: Jimmy Rollins' strained calf and highly anticipated return from the disabled list. Chase Utley's slump. Utley's injured knee. Or not, depending on how you define "injured." Roy Halladay's perfect game. A month when the whole lineup pretty much stopped hitting at once. Ryan Howard's big contract extension. The defending NL champions falling to third place in the division. Brad Lidge is back, he's not, yes he is, well, maybe.
While all that was going on, Ibanez has been staging a quiet comeback.
Since his batting average bottomed out at .229 on June 6, he's 15-for-49 (.306) in 14 games with four doubles, two homers and 10 RBI. He's now hitting .246 for the season. In last night's 7-6 win over the Indians at Citizens Bank Park, he doubled in the fourth inning against Indians starter Jake Westbrook to put the Phillies ahead. He hustled down to third on a wild pitch. In the fifth, he threw out Carlos Santana at the plate to save a run and end the inning, a play that turned out to be crucial.
"He's been swinging better," Charlie Manuel said before the game. "And I think he's going to do better, too. He's been having some good at-bats and he's definitely been swinging better the last couple weeks."
He still has a ways to go. In his other three at-bats he grounded out. In the sixth, that was turned into a doubleplay. In the eighth, it became a force play that didn't bring in the runner in scoring position.
Ibanez has talked about making some mechanical adjustments.
"I think he makes a mechanical adjustment about every day," the manager said with a laugh. "It's like I tell [Indians coach] Sandy Alomar, he's a man of a million stances. And I don't blame him. When I used to struggle, I'd have a lot of stances, too.
"But, really, he tried some things to make sure he's ready and loading up and things like that. When you're not going good or you're not feeling good, you try things. The biggest thing is his leg kick, getting his rhythm down. That's what he's been working on. And Raul works real hard. He's very dedicated. He really takes his work seriously."
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said earlier this week that he had the same surgery Ibanez had, knows how serious it can be and that he might just now be getting his legs back underneath him.
This is a story that's still being written. Werth can be a free agent at the end of the season. If he leaves and Brown replaces him, a lineup that's already pretty lefthanded becomes even more unbalanced. Ibanez still has another year on his contract that will pay him a hefty $11.5 million in 2011.
Those are issues that don't have to be dealt with at the moment. If the season ended today, the Phillies would miss the postseason for the first time since 2006. It will be a lot easier for them to experience the kind of second-half surge they've become accustomed to if Ibanez can once again be a reasonable facsimile of the player he was in the first 2 1/2 months last year.
He had a key hit last night. By the time the game ended, though, Rollins was the hero with a walkoff homer. Ibanez was pushed to the background once again. If he keeps hitting, though, he won't stay in the shadows for the rest of the year.