A LONG TIME ago, back when the sun was still up, several hours before the first pitch of last night's game between the Phillies and the Blue Jays, Cody Asche was at rock bottom. Literally. Or, almost so. He was hitting eighth, one slot behind a guy whose batting average looked more like an unemployment rate. This was actually a positive development, because Asche was actually in the lineup, which had not been the case the previous two evenings, when manager Ryne Sandberg opted to staff third base with Jayson Nix, a journeyman veteran who entered the night with a career batting average of .217, and a career OPS of .644.
Both Sandberg and his immediate superior have expressed public support for Asche, which is exactly what you would expect out of a manager and a general manager who understand that their best chance for production at third base is the kid getting back on track. But patience is known to wear thin when an offense is scuffling, and midway through last night's game, the Phillies' lineup was in full-on brick-in-the-dryer mode. They hadn't scored in 21 innings, dating back to the first inning of a 1-0 win over the Nationals on Sunday. On Monday, they were shut out by a pitcher who was making his first start of the season and his first appearance of any kind in 11 days, and a bullpen that is one of the few in the majors ranked behind the Phillies.
So when the Blue Jays raced out to a 4-0 lead thanks in part to a home run by a centerfielder who has more extra-base hits in this series than the Phillies' centerfielder has in the entire season, there was little reason to think the 20-some-thousand spectators would get their money's worth. And even less reason to think that the man writing the checks would be the 24-year-old third baseman with the .214/.286/.357 batting line.
Funny game, an old friend used to say.
You probably know about Asche's grand slam already, but we'll start there anyway, because it was a hell of a moment. As previously mentioned, everybody has preached patience with regard to Asche. Plenty of players with better pedigrees have slogged their way through beginnings rougher than the one that he has endured through his first 5 weeks of big-league ball. Nevertheless, all we need to know was told by the body language Asche exhibited as he crossed home plate and received a couple of ImPACT-test-worthy pounds on the head from the three teammates he had just driven in with his game-tying blast in the sixth inning.
"It felt good to help the team out in any way I could," Asche said. "There have been a lot of games where I haven't done that. It felt good to be one of the nine guys that was helping contribute to winning the game."
Baseball is kind of like poetry in the sense that it is a great way to make your living if somebody is willing to pay you to do it, but it also has the chance to drive you insane. This is particularly true for a player such as Asche, who can't help but feel every eyeball on him when he starts a season with 21 strikeouts in 70 at-bats. Much of the world assumes that he is merely keeping the position warm for blue-chip prospect Maikel Franco, whom the team took an extra long look at in spring training before finally sending him down to the minors for more seasoning. In recent weeks, Sandberg has mixed in Nix and Freddy Galvis at third base, particularly against righties. Add to this Asche's natural disposition - he probably logs more time on the field in practice situations than any other Phillie, lurking through his downtime with a kind of brooding quiet - and you can almost feel the weight that melted off him during the course of the night.
"That's the nature of this game," Asche said. "There's a lot of mental turmoil that comes along with a long season. The good ones weather the storms and they get back to what they can do. That's what I'm trying to learn to do."
By the end of the night, which saw him go 4-for-4 with a double and the grand slam, Asche had raised his batting average from .214 to .257, his on-base percentage from .286 to .321, his slugging percentage from .357 to .446, and his OPS from .643 to .767. That OPS is now fourth-highest on the team and sixth among NL third baseman with at least 75 plate appearances (ahead of familiar names such as Wright, Carpenter, Olt, Headley and Sandoval).
The bottom line says that the Phillies spoiled the Asche-induced comeback with a 6-5 loss. But there is some hope that a bigger battle was won.
"Hopefully, it will be a breakout game for him," Sandberg said.
Such an occurrence would create a lot more impact than one win or loss.