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Phillies prospect Rizzotti hopes he's going places

ALLENTOWN - When you're the funny man, you always expect the next joke will be on you. So, as Dave Lundquist approached, agitated, Matt Rizzotti was wary.

Phillies prospect Matt Rizzotti was a sixth-round pick in 2007 out of Manhattan College. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Phillies prospect Matt Rizzotti was a sixth-round pick in 2007 out of Manhattan College. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

ALLENTOWN - When you're the funny man, you always expect the next joke will be on you.

So, as Dave Lundquist approached, agitated, Matt Rizzotti was wary.

Rizzotti was signing autographs for kids after a morning game at Class A Clearwater. His line was long, because he was the big new thing in the Phillies' system, having just smoked through the first month in high-A ball, insulted that the Phillies sent him back there this year- to sign autographs in the midafternoon sun.

"What the hell you doing?" asked Lundquist, the Threshers' pitching coach.

Rizzotti smelled a rat, because, simply, he was doing what he was supposed to be doing - putting on the good face of the organization.

"We're waiting for you inside," Lundquist said.

Great, Rizzotti thought; what'd I do now?

Dusty Wathan, the Threshers' manager, was sitting behind his desk when Rizzotti walked in. He rolled a baseball across the desk toward Rizzotti.

"Promise me something," he said to Rizzotti.

"What?" Rizzotti asked as he caught the ball.

"Promise me that's your last hit in A ball."

Rizzotti paused. It didn't register.

"All right, man. Cool," Rizzotti replied, his mind hazy: Is he trying to say . . .

Wathan realized the disconnect.

"Yeah. Because you're going to Double A tomorrow," Wathan said.

Rizzotti replied, "Bleep off."

Rizzotti rose and left the office. In the hall, he waited a few moments.

He peeked his head back around the door and said: "Lundy. Is he serious?"

Lundquist was stunned at Rizzotti's reaction, and, finally, replied, "Yeaah."

Sometimes, the best joke is no joke at all.

A 6-5, 235-pound, lefthanded, 24-year-old hit man with a 44-year-old's hairline, Matt Rizzotti finds life's little challenges amusing. With a smart-aleck, New York City wit, he wants to share his mirth.

In 2009, he found himself hanging on too tightly. Every time he stepped into the batter's box he wanted to hit the ball so hard it landed back home in Long Island. With feet of clay and hands of stone - or so say the scouts - Rizzotti knew he would have to hack a path to the majors.

He relaxed, and he's hacking like crazy now: .358 in 31 games at Clearwater, .362 with 16 homers and 61 RBI in 76 games at Double A Reading, .300 in his first 10 games with Triple A Lehigh Valley.

He recalls Ryan Howard, the injured Phillies first baseman who scorched through the minors 6 years ago as an older prospect who took time to get hot. Howard now blocks Rizzotti's path to the majors.

But before this season, Howard and the majors didn't seem a likely issue for Rizzotti. A sixth-round pick in 2007 out of anonymous Manhattan College, Rizzotti hit .260, .268 and .263 with modest power at the first three Class A levels.

After 2009 he accepted more fully the Phillies' offseason conditioning program, which, the Phillies will tell you, has made a huge difference.

He will tell you differently. He will tell you that he adapted the Phillies' conditioning program to one that would, ultimately, literally, help him climb three levels in one season.

Rizzotti worked with Manhattan College basketball trainer Joe Stolzer, a maniacal, old-school sort whose shrine to fitness is a four-story flight of stairs.

"His big thing was doing stairs. All the time," Rizzotti said. Not just running stairs: "If you did something, it was on the stairs. If we'd do 90-foot sprints here, I'm doing 90-foot sprints on the stairs. One day did 40 minutes of stairs, straight."

Part of the Phillies' regimen includes lunges.

"I did that going up the stairs," Rizzotti recalled. "Yeah. Pretty fun."

Stairs are just part of Stolzer's program. If you're supposed to do, say, 50 pushups, you do 50 pushups. Eventually.

"You're out of gas, right? Nothing left. If you can't do it, he's like, 'Oh well.' I've had 4-hour workouts," said Rizzotti, who is 30 pounds lighter than his listed weight in the Phillies' media guide. "If there was nothing left, it didn't matter. He's like, looking at his watch, 'All right. Let's wait. You're gonna do it.' "

Rizzoti's middle got harder and his legs got stronger and, most important, his mind got tougher.

"It was all mental toughness," Rizzotti said. "If someone goes out and tells me to run 100 sprints on flat ground, that's a lot easier in my mind to think of running 100 sprints on four flights of stairs. And it's a heck of a lot easier than hitting a 90 mph fastball."

That might be, but don't expect to meet Rizzotti in the stairwells at the team hotel.

When he's not training, he said, "For me, it's all elevators."

Rizzotti wasn't exactly on the express in the Phillies' system, and he knew it. At 24, a prospect's clock is ticking, especially when he's playing with guys 2 or 3 years younger.

"It was definitely in my mind. In my mind, it was an all-important, make-or-break year," Rizzotti said. "Honestly? I definitely did not hope for this much make."

He said that he hoped to hit .300, that he hoped to collect 20 homers, that he hoped to make it to Double A so the Phillies would see that they should have started him there this year.

"I thought I was going to start in Reading. Yeah, I was ticked," he said. "I guess the Phillies had a different idea, which I can definitely appreciate. It definitely woke something up in me."

It's something he still has to control, especially now, with Howard and backup Ross Gload hurt and Greg Dobbs still lost. There's a need for a lefthanded power bat - even one with just 30 Triple A at-bats.

Can he contribute to the big club?

"I'm going to leave that one alone," assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said.

With the carrot dangled so closely now, Rizzotti said he thinks about padding the power numbers. He admits he wants to yank a few, instead of continuing to spray hits all over the place. Doubles to leftfield in Reading are outs in Allentown, and Allentown's rightfield fence is enticing.

"I try to keep it simple, but I'm kind of getting away from it here. It's slowly creeping; I see that short porch in right," Rizzotti said.

IronPigs manager Dave Huppert has not noticed Rizzotti get pull-happy, and he hasn't seen him get overanxious, either. Rizzotti recognizes offspeed pitches and knows he will see plenty early in counts at Triple A.

"He's been very patient at the plate. He's had good swings," Huppert said. As for the defense, "He's young. The more games he plays, the more chances he gets, the better he'll get."

The Phillies aren't expecting much with the mitt. Rizzotti muffed a groundball early in one game last week, but he was cool enough to recover and flip to the covering pitcher for an out.

"He's never going to be an above-average fielder," said LaMar, the organization's minor league czar. "He's got to continue to hit."

Fair enough, Rizzotti said - but, really, can he be so awful afield?

"It's like I just go out there with a stone slab on my right hand, and my feet are tied down," he said. "I don't think I'd be alive if I was that bad."

At least he can laugh about it.

After about 2 months at Reading, his role as clubhouse clown cemented, Rizzotti enlisted manager Steve Roadcap in a scheme. Rizzoti thought it would be funny to convince reliever Justin De Fratus that De Fratus would have to attend the instructional league this fall.

Instructional league is the minor league equivalent of remedial tutoring.

Later that day, Roadcap called Rizzotti into his office.

"Rizz," Roadcap said, hesitant and solemn. "Um . . . listen. We're going to send you to instructs."

Rizzotti spent time in instructional ball last year. He didn't like it, and Roadcap knew it:

"We want you to work on your fielding. We'd like to keep an eye on you before sending you off to winter ball."

Rizzotti bristled.

"Roadie," he replied, heatedly; "You know for a fact I am not going to instructs . . . Am I? . . . Really?"


Rizzotti's shoulders slumped.

"All right, man. See ya."

He left the office. For a moment. Then, as he had done before in Clearwater, he peeked back in:

"Are you serious?"

"No," Roadcap said. "Not serious.

"You're going to Lehigh tomorrow."

Footnote: Unbeknownst to Roadcap and Rizzotti, LaMar told the Daily News last week that, in fact, Rizzotti likely will be sent to the instructional league again, as well as the Arizona Fall League.