Out of Left Field: He's A Pipp

Lou Gehrig gave Wally Pipp an unfortunate claim to fame, making him the answer to the trivia question, "who did Lou Gehrig replace in the lineup during his consecutive games played streak?" While the Phillies made the decision to stick with a veteran second baseman at the end of spring training, the rookie - Chase Utley - may be playing the role of Lou Gehrig. Plus, a fun little game of "what if?" to consider.

It is one of the most well known legends in baseball history. On June 2, 1925, Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp, suffering from a possible concussion from a bean ball the day before, told his manager, Miller Huggins, that he needed the day off. Huggins inserted a young upstart named Lou Gehrig, who had made his major league debut the day before in a pinch-hitting appearance, into Pipp's place in the line-up. As we all know, Gehrig didn't leave the lineup for another 2,129 games. Wally Pipp, an All-Star caliber ballplayer prior to 1925, was traded to Cincinnati at season's end and became perhaps the most famous footnote in baseball history.

Fast-forward nearly eighty years to The City of Brotherly Love, where veteran Placido Polanco appeared so entrenched in the Phillies lineup that young upstart Chase Utley, despite a strong spring showing and an attitude that his manager loved, was optioned to AAA for the third season in a row. A few weeks later, Polanco, struggling at the plate, felt a twinge in his troublesome left quadriceps muscle as he ran out a routine ground ball. This happens to be the same injury that sidelined Polanco for 16 games in 2003.

Up comes Utley, who responds by driving in 16 runs in his first 12 games. Utley's recall happens to coincide with a resurgence in the Phillies offense as they storm into first place in the National League Eastern Division. As Polanco gets closer to being eligible to return from the DL, there is much hand wringing amongst the Phillies coaches and front office staff; how can they possibly send Utley down now? As if by divine intervention (or perhaps a little creative maneuvering by the trainers), Polanco suffers a setback on his last physical test prior to being activated.

To borrow from the lyrics to the cartoon epic Top Cat, "He's the boss, he's a pip, he's the championship..." This move may make Placido Polanco a pip indeed - A Wally Pipp - and it may end up being a key to a championship run for the Phillies. When you consider all that is invested in this move for the Phillies, you'd have to consider this "set-back" a truly fortuitous event. Larry Bowa had already begun to spin forward the idea that Polanco was going to be reinserted into the starting lineup as soon as he was activated. This despite the fact that Utley has been hitting the cover off the ball, seems more intuitive playing his defensive position, and has sparked the Phillies surge up the standings in May.

Polanco is in the final year of a contract; Utley just beginning his big league career. While Polanco has been a steady, if unspectacular, hitter during his career, Utley's upside with the bat is intriguing. This is Chase Utley's time to lay claim to his future here in Philly, and for the Phillies to start looking for a deal for Placido Polanco. Just as Miller Huggins did with Lou Gehrig 80-years ago in New York, Larry Bowa and Ed Wade need to have the courage and discipline to look past Polanco's steady play, and envision the player that Utley will become. No one could argue that Huggins made a mistake by replacing a regular who had 114 RBI the year before with a rookie. Now, it's Chase Utley's time to make Placido Polanco a footnote in Phillies history.

Bo (-chy) don't know. Let's play a game of "What would happen if". What would happen if Phillies Manager Larry Bowa used all of his position players in a Sunday afternoon game, only to have his team load the bases in the ninth inning of a 6-3 game with the pitcher's spot due up? I think it's safe to say that Bowa would have been vilified by the Phillies fans and media for such a bonehead move. That is exactly what happened to Padres Manager Bruce Bochy on Sunday, but he seems to have been given a pass on this.

The situation was this: In the top of the eighth inning, Padres centerfielder Jay Payton hit a ground ball to Shawn Wooten at first base. Roberto Hernandez moved from the mound to cover first base, but Wooten fielded the ball close enough to the bag to take it himself. Through miscommunication (and a little rust), Wooten, Hernandez, and Payton all arrived at the bag at the same time. Wooten kept the ball and stepped on the bag a split-second after Payton got there (replays confirm this) but the first base umpire called him out. Payton argued the call, as did Padres first base coach Davey Lopes, and Payton was eventually tossed from the game.

Padres' catcher Ramon Hernandez then singled, putting the tying run on first base for the Padres. Bochy elected to pinch-run for Hernandez with speedy outfielder Kerry Robinson. At this point, Bochy knows that Payton has been tossed from the game, and knows that Robinson has to replace him. He also knows that since Robinson is now running for his catcher, he will have to insert his backup catcher, Miguel Ojeda, into the game to replace Hernandez. Bochy knows that Ojeda is his last position player left on the bench.

Here's where things get a little dicey for Bochy. First, Robinson is thrown out attempting to steal second and is slightly injured when he comes into contact with Chase Utley on the throw. Robinson stays in the game (although by the looks of him bent over at the waist in center field between innings, who knows whether he would have been able to run after a fly ball.) Next, since Phil Nevin was pinch-hitting for the pitcher when Robinson was thrown out, Nevin remains in the game in the ninth spot in the order and plays first base. Nevin will be the first Padres batter in the top of the ninth. With a new pitcher and a new catcher coming into the game, Bochy is allowed to place either player in the fifth or sixth slots in the order, because of the players they are replacing.

The move you make as a manager ten-out-of-ten times is placing the pitcher in the latest spot in the order (in this case the sixth position, which would have been due up seventh in the top of the ninth) and place the catcher in the other spot (the fifth slot, one batter earlier.) However, Bochy doesn't do this; instead, he puts the pitcher in the fifth spot. Now, most games, this would not become an issue, but on Sunday it did because the Padres got men on second and third with two out against Tim Worrell. When Ryan Klesko came to the plate as the tying run - but with first base open - Larry Bowa popped out of the dugout to check his lineup card with the home plate umpire. No doubt because even LB could not believe what he was looking at; the pitcher was due up next. The umpire confirmed for Bowa that indeed, Jay Witasick (who had not had a hit in his last 134 major league games) was due to be the next batter, not the catcher Miguel Ojeda. Bowa ordered Klesko to be walked.

Now, the fact is that Bochy ended up pinch-hitting for Witasick with Adam Eaton (another pitcher, but one who at least had a hit this season) and Tim Worrell inexplicably ended up walking Eaton and adding a run to the Padres score before finishing out the game. But this was a horrible managerial sequence and one that Bochy has tried to explain away by pointing to Payton being tossed from the game. Truth be told, Bochy made these decisions AFTER Payton had been tossed, and Larry Bowa did exactly the right thing in that situation, even if he did bring the potential go-ahead run to the plate. So, the next time you think about criticizing a decision our coaching staff makes during the game, remember Bruce Bochy and the tail of Adam Eaton's first career pinch-hit RBI. Ain't that a pip?

DN Curry comes to you Out of Left Field every Thursday at PhillyBaseballNews.com. You can email him at dncurry@comcast.net.

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