"Whether a team wins a baseball game or not depends upon its pitcher. He is the defensive anchor. He is the one man on the team who comes into active competition with every member of the opposing side. He carries most of the load - some players put it as high as 75 per cent."
- from "Connie Mack's Baseball Book," 1950
ANYONE WHO doubts the 75 percent truism - and Mack reportedly upped it to 90 percent at least once in an interview - should be sentenced to watching a replay of the last month in the lives of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Now that Chase Utley is returning, we all will dutifully catalog the relevant statistics because that is what we do. For comparison's sake, here goes:
The Phillies went 28-18 without Utley.
They hit .245.
They scored 3.8 runs per game.
Now we will see what happens with Utley back in the lineup, starting today. That the record does not fit the offensive numbers is beyond obvious. That they have become painful to watch is also more than plain. When manager Charlie Manuel says, "When the game starts, all you can do is sit there and kind of watch, kind of let things play out to a certain degree," everybody understands. Some forces are beyond man's powers.
But never in their recent history, their run of excellence, has pitching meant more to the Phillies than it does this season. The only reason this isn't a nine-alarm fire at the end of May is because they have received 33 well-pitched games from the starters out of 46 total games. They have managed to tread water this month, with a 10-10 record despite no run production, only because of those starters.
Which is why, on the day when everybody is going to be talking about the return of Utley from his right-knee tendinitis and chondromalacia, the continuing comeback of starting pitcher Roy Oswalt from back problems was just as intriguing a story.
Yes, they flushed his fine effort: seven innings pitched, one run allowed in a 2-0 loss to the Texas Rangers. But in his second start since returning from the disabled list, Oswalt threw 96 pitches and took another important step.
"I felt like he had good stuff," Manuel said. "He had good command today. He did a good job, gave up the one run . . . He definitely improved from the 76 pitches he threw in St. Louis. He felt pretty good."
That is as far as anyone would go: "pretty good." Oswalt went with, "Getting better, for sure. The arm strength isn't all the way back, but, better."
You could see he wasn't himself yet in his strikeout total, only three. You could see it in a fastball that remains a bit below typical. When you don't have all of your arm strength, Oswalt said, location becomes paramount and the middle of the plate becomes an absolute no-fly zone. Now, add in an offense that is beyond sporadic at this point, and pitching becomes an interesting test of a man's nerve.
"You kind of have to dance between raindrops out there, not give up too many hits in one inning," he said. "You have to make big pitches at big times."
Oswalt got a lot of questions after the game about the offense and about Utley. He deflected as best he could. He says he is concentrated on his own business, on eating innings. The rest, he said, is not up to him.
Still, he did acknowledge, "[Utley] should add a lot to the lineup. He got a good many at-bats down in Florida, so he should be ready to come back and help the offense. Just adding him to the lineup is going to be the biggest thing."
Oswalt was asked about the nine consecutive games in which the Phillies have failed to score more than three runs. He responded with a verbal shrug.
"That's baseball," he said. "You never know what's going to happen until you start playing. Next 10 games, we could score 10 every game - and won't nothing be said about the last 10 games."
He is right, of course. At the same time, no one can reasonably expect Utley to turn around this offense by himself. There are too many moving parts that are moving in the wrong direction.
What they can expect here is stabilization. What they can hope for, with Utley, is an end to the downspiral and a more consistent, more predictable offensive product. If that happens, and if Oswalt continues to approach 100 percent, and if Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee can stay healthy, that will be more than enough.
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