Opening Night: First inning

myersIt’s kind of hard to believe that Brett Myers is making his third straight Opening Day start. After all, Myers pitched out of the bullpen just a handful of starts after his maiden Opening Day start.

Last year, of course, he still had his head in the ‘pen during the opener. In fact, the Phillies more or less admitted that Myers got the nod over Cole Hamels as a reward for being a good soldier in 2007.

This year Myers got the start because Hamels wasn’t ready to go. Because of that Myers might be more ready to pitch since he does not have the first-time jitters nor his mind wandering about being a closer.

Hell, he might just allow himself to go out and pitch this year. Pretty novel concept, huh?

Anyway, Myers pitched cautiously to cleanup hitter Brian McCann after Chipper Jones laced a two-out, two-strike single.

Apparently it wasn’t cautious enough because after falling behind in the count to McCann, Myers left a fastball up and it ended up in the second deck. Just like that Myers was in a 2-0 hole.

So much for our theories, huh?

Against Lowe, the Phillies went in order though Chase Utley gave the fans a start when he flied to the warning track in right.

On another note, Pat Gillick threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Jayson Stark, sitting to my immediate right, offered that the ex-GM probably warmed up in the ‘pen before delivering a solid strike across the plate to catcher Chris Coste.

I countered with Gillick was probably wondering how he was unable to get rid of Coste after all this time.

Weird, wild stuff

How does a guy get into the game in the eighth inning and go 4-for-4? Really, how does that happen?

And not only did Chris Coste enter the game as a pinch hitter in one of manager Charlie Manuel’s spate of astute double-switches in the late innings of last night’s 8-7, 13-inning win over the Mets, but also he remained in the game to catch.

Coste could have stayed in the game to play third base, a position he played many times during his long, pro career, but starting catcher Carlos Ruiz – a second baseman in Panama when the Phillies signed him – had moved over to the hot corner. Besides, Ruiz was the third of four different third basemen in the game against the Mets. You know, Charlie had a plan.

Watching all those players shuffling in and out of the game and into odd-looking arrangements, one had to have the sneaking suspicion that Charlie knew his fourth third baseman and his second catcher were going to deliver for him.

Strangely enough they did. Eric Bruntlett, who went up to pinch hit with two outs in the ninth smacked the game-tying run to force extra innings and help the Phillies finish up the seven-run comeback. He remained in the game at third and added another hit and a walk to help set the table for Coste’s game-winner in the bottom of the 13th.

There was a method to the madness.

“I started to put Bruntlett in the game and I told (bench coach) Jimy (Williams) that I want to save Bruntlett to hit,” Manuel said. “Ruiz has been catching balls at third base and working out there. Actually he was an infielder before they made him a catcher in the minor leagues. At that time I thought what have we got to lose? We needed a run. I wanted to keep Bruntlett back to hit for the pitcher, who had a good chance of hitting.”

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

“I don’t ever recall getting not only four opportunities but four hits when you come in in the eighth inning,” Coste said.

Well, no. Of course not. But last night’s game was just one of those wildly absurd things. In fact, so pressed for players was Manuel that he used two different starting pitchers to pinch hit in the smooth sailing five-hours, 17-minute, 8-7 win over the Mets. One of those pinch hitters, Cole Hamels, was called on for duty for the second time in three games with a chance to send home the game-winning run. In Hamels’ case, Manuel wanted his man to be a hitter and knock ‘em in.

But with Brett Myers, Manuel gave the take sign the whole way. Actually, one has to think that if Myers would have moved the bat from his shoulder the manager would have charged out of the dugout and beat him over the head with it. With the bases loaded following Shane Victorino’s leadoff triple and two straight intentional walks, Manuel had to send someone up there to hit for one-inning pitcher Rudy Seanez. Yet there was no way Myers was going to go up there and ruin the rally by actually swinging at the ball.

Give credit to Myers not just for following orders, but also for having an entertaining at-bat. Strutting up to the plate to be nothing more than a suit with a pulse to stand there and not hit into a double play, Myers crouched, wiggled his bat and took an exaggerated front-leg lift while striding into a pitch from Scott Schoenweis that would have made Sadarahu Oh blush.

When Myers “worked” the count to three balls, no one could believe that it had come to this. Was Myers going to win the game with a walk-off walk in the 13th? Please tell us this isn’t happening.

Thankfully, order was restored and Coste singled in Victorino from third to end it.

Still, Coste says Myers’ at-bat paved the way.

“He was intimidating,” Coste said. “I know I was intimidated standing at the on-deck circle.”

“There were a lot of things happening in this one,” Manuel said. “It had everything except for a fight.”

Maybe they can work on that for tonight.

Mr. Coste goes to Washington… has lunch

Chris CosteWASHINGTON – One of the neat things about this city is that sports really aren’t all that important. Oh sure, Washingtonians love their teams – especially the Redskins – but what drives the news and the talk here is the industry.

In D.C. it’s all about the government.

Sports seem to be nothing more than a pleasant diversion unlike in Philadelphia where it is everything. In Philadelphia the athletes just don’t play for the local teams, they represent us.

It’s definitely unique in that way.

D.C. is unique, too. Even though Nationals Park is barely a month old, the Nats rate 17th in the Majors in attendance and 13th in the National League. Usually it takes a year for teams with a new ballpark to see the business at the turnstiles wane, but it’s happening right away here in The District.

But the power structure is different here than it is in Philly. The jocks don’t have the Q-rating – the folks with the power do.

Nevertheless, I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why the attendance has been so low here. For one, the Nationals aren’t very good. At 20-27 they are in last place in the NL East. Plus, aside from Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson, the fans don’t have too many players to rally behind.

Additionally, this is a presidential election year. That’s like the biggest thing they do in these parts, so people are focused on it all day long. Couple that with the fact that Congress (and school) is still in session and our representatives are busy trying to make laws and stuff and it’s easy to understand why the last-place Nats kind of fall between the cracks.

Yet before he went to work trying to override a presidential veto of his farm bill and dive into his work as the chairman of the senate budget committee, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) took the time to hang around with one of his constituents this afternoon.

Chris Coste, the Phillies catcher from Fargo, N.D., spent time with Conrad in his Hart Building office, talked some baseball, signed copies of his autobiography and then had lunch in the U.S. Capitol building. There, Coste and some of the hangers-on from the Phillies enjoyed the senate dining room’s famous bean soup and also chatted with Democratic Pennsylvania senator Robert P. Casey Jr.

According to reports, a good time was had by all. Plus, the Phillies’ group was quite impressed with Sen. Conrad’s baseball knowledge.

Meanwhile, Coste found himself in the lineup against Nats’ lefty Matt Chico tonight. Actually, Coste has been in the lineup more than “regular” catcher Carlos Ruiz lately. One reason for that could be that Coste hit .438 (7-for-16) during the last homestand.

However, the Phillies are 17-11 in games started by Ruiz this season.

Rest up

sheepThere’s a whole bunch of stories that piqued our interest today regarding the Phillies and intriguing topics.

On the Phillies it seems as if Kris Benson is a little dinged up, though that doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Actually, it just sounds like Benson needs what we marathoners call an “easy day.” After weeks of piling hard days on top of each other, it sounds like Benson’s right arm told his brain that it was shutting it down for a few days.

“I’ve been going a month straight now, throwing every single day, and it’s held up pretty good,” Benson said. “I’ve gotten pretty far along in this process. I think to expect me to go from the first day of camp to the last day of the season without taking a break here and there because it’s going to fatigue out is … not going to happen.”

So Benson needs to go easy, which is how the body builds its self up. Most folks believe that the hard workouts are what makes an athlete strong, but that’s not even the half of it. Muscle regenerates and grows during recovery and rest – it suffers micro-tears and gets beat to bits during work. That’s part of the reason why human growth hormone is so popular – not only does it help create lean muscle mass, but also it allows an athlete to skip some of the recovery process.

Sleep, of course, is an important part of the process, too. In fact, celebrity doctor Mehmet C. Oz writes in the April, 2008 edition of Esquire that people need sleep more than they need food. That makes sense when one considers that it is during deep sleep that the body naturally produces HGH.

Writes Oz:

If you get less than six hours of sleep a night, you’re in trouble. You need sleep more than you need food. When you’re always tired, you actually age faster than you should.

In other words, work hard and then rest up because that’s what it takes.

“If I could take a break now and take advantage of it and use this to build myself up for the 60-pitch area, to bump up to the next area, then I think in the long run it will be a good thing,” Benson said.

Kris BensonOf course who could blame Benson for pushing it a little harder than he should have over the past few weeks? With the backend of the Phillies’ rotation struggling and looking for some help, Benson probably saw a spot or two ripe for the proverbial picking. There are jobs to be had on a potential playoff club at stake and Benson rightfully reasoned that one of those spots could be his.

It still could, but it seems as if some extended spring work in Clearwater, followed by a minor-league rehab stint will be needed in the meantime.

***
Working-class hero Chris Coste’s memoir, The 33-Year Old Rookie hit stores today. With a copy en route from the good folks at Ballantine Books, we will be sure to have a full review here ASAP.

***
Allen Iverson returns to Philadelphia for the first time with the Denver Nuggets tomor…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Allen IversonOh, sorry about dozing off in the middle of a sentence like that. It’s just that in Philadelphia, it’s a tired old story that another all-time great is returning to town with another team. There are many issues with this trend, namely, why do all the really good players want to leave town?

How much time do we have?

Nevertheless, it will be a more exciting story when the all-time greats play their entire careers for a Philadelphia.

***
Sports and politics are always a bad mix, just like it was a bad idea for the Carter Adminstration to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. But if there were ever an Olympics to be boycotted, this summer’s games in Beijing are ripe.

Excluding the issues regarding China’s horrendous human-rights record, environmental and pollution atrocities as well as the most recent killings in yet another crackdown against basic freedoms in Tibet make one wonder why the International Olympic Committee would ever consider having its games in China in the first place.

HailePlus, athletes aren’t even allowed to sign autographs for their fans as evidenced by the Chan Ho Park incident in Beijing last week.

Perhaps the best measure of protest against the Chinese is the French Olympic committee’s move to boycott the opening ceremonies in August. Even better is the subtle – but powerful – protest by Haile Gebrselassie to skip the Olympic marathon. This is quite meaningful because Gebrselassie shattered the world record in the marathon last October. Plus, Geb is the most decorated distance runner in history with stirring Olympic victories in the 10,000 meters in 1996 and 2000 in what are regarded as the most dramatic runs in the event’s history.

So when Geb says pollution in Beijing is a concern enough to skip the Olympics, the issues are worth investigating…

Like why would the IOC award Beijing with something like the Olympics in the first place?

***
The autopsy for top American marathoner Ryan Shay was finally released today – 4 ½ months after his death in the Olympic Trials in New York City. It appears as if Shay’s heart was too big – no drugs, no foul play. But everyone who knew Shay never suspected any of that in the first place.

***
Tomorrow: Lenny Dykstra and the NCAA Tournament

Coste to Coste

Chris Coste leaned up against his locker in the Phillies’ clubhouse casually chatting about Wednesday night’s 3-0 victory over the first-place New York Mets for the team’s third win in a row. Certainly it was no typical day for the Phillies’ catcher, who drove in the winning runs with a two-run home run in the second inning off potential Hall of Famer Tom Glavine on his way to a 3-for-3 game. After all, it isn’t every day a when a guy has a feature story written about him in The New York Times – the paper of record.

On the strength of that story, Coste received two letters from literary agents that were set beneath his cell phone that blinked on and off like a faraway beacon on the horizon. Perhaps it was another (yes, another) Hollywood agent calling to check in about developing a feature?

Heck, maybe it was the president. After all, he spent the day campaigning for money in Lancaster.

So as Coste entertained the gaggle of writers and TV folks who formed a semi-circle about three bodies deep around him, it could have dawned on him that, yes, maybe I ought to pinch myself. How can all this be happening? A triple short of a cycle and two RBIs against Tom Glavine?

Is this a dream?

“I wouldn’t have ever guessed this,” Coste said. “My whole career has been a fight and I just never got a chance. Just to make the big leagues was enough.”

But that was before. Now, after 11 seasons in the minors and five different Major League organizations – as well as two independent league teams – the 33-year old rookie isn’t thinking about his one shot. He’s already accomplished the dream. Now his trying to live it.

“To say this is a dream wouldn’t do it justice,” Coste said.

The reporters didn’t gather around Coste to hear the fairy tale stories all over again – though it was interesting. Instead they came to ask Coste about another game in the big leagues. Another game in which he produced a clutch hit, and caught a good game just like he was any other player making his way through another long baseball season. It didn’t matter that Coste had the improbable story of winters spent playing in Mexico or spending Christmases at a Wal-Mart with teammates only to have the doors of the big-league clubhouses slammed in his face year after year. It didn’t matter that he was the 33-year-old rookie who Hollywood types were looking to cash in off of like that science teacher from Texas.

In this case Coste is sharing the starting catching duties with a guy playing in his 13th Major League season for a team very much in the middle of a playoff run, and is making a significant contribution.

In fact, Coste was calling the pitches for Jon Lieber on Wednesday night as the big right-hander turned in the team’s best pitching outing of the season. With Coste behind the dish, Lieber threw a taut five-hitter where he threw 101 pitches in nine innings without a walk in shutting out the Mets.

“It’s been awesome. He’s done a tremendous job back there, especially after spring training and going through that difficult situation,” Lieber understated. “He’s definitely building up his confidence.”

That difficult situation Lieber was talking about was when Coste was sent back to Triple-A even though he pounded the ball during Grapefruit League action in spring training for a .472 batting average. Instead of Coste as a backup catcher or a utility infielder, the Phillies opted to go with Sal Fasano and Alex Gonzalez instead.

Fasano, of course, was designated for assignment and then dealt to the Yankees, while Gonzalez decided to retire after hitting .111 in 20 games.

Said manager Charlie Manuel: “He’s doing a good job. He can put the fat part of the bat on the ball.”

That’s another understatement. Since making it to the Majors on May 26, Coste is mostly fattening up his stats. In going 3-for-3 on Wednesday, Coste’s average jumped to .359 to go with five homers and 22 RBIs. His on-base percentage is a robust .400 while his OPS, is a very lusty .973.

In 100 games from Fasano and 13-year veteran Mike Lieberthal, the Phillies have received seven homers, 30 RBIs and a .247 average. But take away the 0-for-13 Coste had when first making his debut, and the average climbs to .411.

Looks like the Phillies found their catcher.

Right?

Well…

“I sneak up on everybody. That’s my style,” Coste said about his red-hot start. “It’s nice being under the radar a bit. The second time through the league will be different. That’s what everyone is telling me.”

That certainly seems to be the case. Coste isn’t a secret any more. With the features in The Times, literary agents writing for ideas, and Hollywood producers looking for the latest feel-good story, it’s very likely that Coste is going to have to make some more adjustments in order to keep the good times going.

As far as that goes, Coste is ready.

“As a human you want more and you get greedy,” Coste said. “If you get up here for a year you want to stay for 15. I want to be like Julio Franco playing when I’m 47. You want more. That’s human nature.”

And at this point, more is never enough.

Fasano designated for assignment

It seems as if Chris Coste has finally earned a spot in the Major Leagues for the rest of the season.

At least that’s the way it appears after the Phillies announced that catcher Sal Fasano had been designated for assignment prior to Saturday’s game against the Atlanta Braves at the Bank.

Though popular with a certain segment of the fan base and the media, Fasano’s batting average was .243 with four homers and 10 RBIs in 50 games. Though his strong arm was an asset when runners reached base, Fasano didn’t seem to be the answer for the Phillies when starting catcher Mike Lieberthal had an extended stay on the disabled list.

The Phillies now have 10 days to dispose of Fasano’s contract. If he is not claimed by another team or traded during that period, Fasano can be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre or opt to become a free agent.

“I’m not very pleased with it, but it’s a part of the game that you don’t understand and you don’t know if you’ll ever understand,” Fasano said. “Me coming off the DL really forced their hand. They basically said they needed to make a move, and they can’t justify getting rid of anybody else, which I can understand. Catching-wise, you keep the guys that you had, but I was under the impression that we were going to keep three catchers.”

Said assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr.: “We decided to stay with (Mike) Lieberthal and Coste as our catchers. We felt like they were doing a very good job in that role. Unfortunately for Sal, while he worked hard and was very professional for us, he got caught up in a numbers game. He did a pretty good job, but there are certain difficult decisions you have to make when these types of situations occur.”

Coste, on the other hand, has performed pretty well for the Phillies since his call up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. With a pair of homers and 12 RBIs to go with his .333 batting average in 20 games, the 33-year-old rookie has turned himself into a viable backup catcher. Plus, Coste can play both corner infield positions and probably the outfield if he can dig up the correct glove.

Nevertheless, Coste looks at the decision as yet another motivator in his quest to become a big-league mainstay. That’s especially the case with Fasano having spent parts of eight seasons in the Majors.

“Seeing a situation like that is motivation to work harder,” Coste said.

That’s definitely the case since Fasano was set to be activated from the disabled list on Saturday after spending time in the minors on a rehab assignment. Coste figured there was a good chance that he was going to be cast aside when Fasano was eligible to return despite his superior offensive numbers.

For instance, Coste has as many RBIs this month in limited action as cleanup hitter Pat Burrell. Both players have driven in 10 runs.

Still, Coste believed that he was a good option for the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel because he can play other positions as well as catcher. Even though he started his big-league career on a 0-for-13 skid, Coste knew he gave Manuel some options.

“I wasn’t nervous [about being sent down to the minors] because I was still a third catcher and I gave them some flexibility,” Coste reasoned. “Even though I wasn’t producing I knew that I was providing flexibility just by sitting on the bench.”

But now that he is producing by going 18-for-41 (.439) after that initial 0-for-13, including a pair of homers in his last two games, Coste knows that the big-league experience on his resume will help him when he attempts to make a club next spring training. Even after a strong spring like he had by hitting .463 for the Phillies in March.

“I could have hit .700 in spring training, but it’s still just spring training,” Coste said. “Now I have some experience as a backup. That should help me.”

Or at least get him out of having to play winter ball this year.