Next Man Up: Phillies at Cardinals

The Philadelphia Phillies bring scary talent into Busch Stadium this weekend. The St. Louis Cardinals bring fortitude and bandages.

The rest of the National League enters the heart of the interleague season, a chance to measure themselves against the long-time oppressors of the opposite league. The Cardinals, minus their two top players, face off against the NL East-leading Phillies with a chance to find out just how good they can be.

Brian Burwell of the Post-Dispatch wrote a piece in the wake of these injuries to Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright, making a beautiful point that cuts through the clamor:

"This is the cold and unforgiving reality of the game. Next man up. You don't fret over who isn't with you."

The writer speaks of a universal truth. We are all ushered along our path far too quickly, but our character is defined by how bravely we take than next step forward. We are being shown a brief preview of the day when Albert Pujols, a legendary talent and the greatest Cardinal of my generation, will no longer line up with birds on his bat; we are reminded that we must reckon with that day at some point, whether now or sometime after that day comes.

However the game will go on, as it must, and we must also.

As it happened, the day after Wainwright was DL'ed and Pujols was cradled off the field by his teammates, Braden Looper was the next man up. Looper, the career reliever who finished more than 300 major league games before making his first start, chose that day – or perhaps the day chose him – to pitch both ends of a game for the first time in his career.

It was completely unexpected, just as it was for the team to match its highest margin of victory on the season in this offense's first game without its anchor (a 10-0 pasting of the Reds). But then, this team has many unexpecteds on its roster.

There are large, poster-sized surprises: Rick Ankiel in the outfield, Ryan Ludwick on the All-Star team (we hope), Tony La Russa back in the good graces of Cardinals fans. There are earlier-than-expected successes: Kyle McClellan, Chris Perez and now Mitchell Boggs. And, there are player transformations that grizzled baseball watchers just shake their heads at: Todd Wellemeyer suddenly realizes his potential after years of sloughing it off; Cesar Izturis becomes a productive player seemingly overnight; Ryan Franklin, at age 35 and presumably clean, becomes a far better pitcher than he ever was at his "prime," when he had the benefits of both youth and PEDs.

The just-concluded series against the Reds marks the eighth consecutive which the Birds have won or tied, in spite of the hurdles which have appeared in their track. Their upcoming opponents will put quite a formidable roadblock in place, though.

The powerful first-place Philadelphia Phillies know something of streaks, having just ripped off a similar run of six consecutive successful series before this speed bump against the Marlins. Their offense is second only in the majors to the Cubs', and their pitching has been ferociously good – particularly by left-handed wunderkind Cole Hamels and suddenly reformed closer Brad Lidge.

The Phillies know something about legendary talents, too. Their roster holds two MVPs under the age of 30, and neither is as rare a player as their second baseman, Chase Utley. Their ace pitcher has not yet turned 25, but his legend has been building through internet scripture for years, describing feats impossible to any man except he who could lead Phillies fans out of their ever-lasting torment:

"Cole Hamels once struck out 34 batters in a nine inning game. Afterwards, he helped the concession crew fill up the ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers. Then he went to a nightclub down the shore and sat in on bass with Bruce Springsteen. They played a 19 hour set."

However, the most implausible tale in his legend is 100% true.

Cole Hamels, age 20 and pitching for high-A Clearwater, introduces himself to the year's most sought-after woman in America, Heidi Strobel. Her face and figure are known to all from her brazen antics on Survivor: Amazon. She is five years older than Cole, and is surrounded by men of all ages, types, and incomes at an autograph-signing, where she is penning her name above her own picture on the cover of Playboy magazine.

Tall, thin and dark, Cole has the physique of a pocket comb. His name is unknown outside the deepest circles of baseball. He is out of uniform, and his left arm, which he broke while throwing a fastball, is in a sling.

He asks her out. She says yes. In less than three years they are married.

Compared to that, ushering the Phils to an impossible leapfrog over last year's collapsing Mets and into the playoffs was simple. However, the savior won't get a turn in this series. The Phillies will have to rely on the next man up.

 

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