Ron Costello

Friday, December 22, 2017

Has Hope Returned for the Faithful?

Remember Black Friday? The '77 NLCS game four when the Phillies took a 5-3 lead into the ninth and blew it. Danny Ozark 'forgot' to insert Jerry Martin as a late-inning replacement for the Bull, and it cost the Phillies the game and possibly the series

That was 40 years ago, long before there were bench coaches and analytical teams. How did the game exist without replays and data to help defenses shift, and without no-pitch, automatic walks?

And long before the Wizard strolled into town.

Changes are coming to the game, changes from the Suits who run baseball and from the 35-year-old Wizard, now the Phillies GM. Changes that may alter the game as we know it, how we played it, and how we follow it today.

Beginning this season, pitchers no longer have to throw the four waste pitches to intentionally walk a batter. The manager simply signals to the umpire to walk him and it's done. Why? The Suits believe the game is boring, too long, and too slow.

They are already experimenting with the following changes in the minor leagues; now in the pipeline and could be here before we know it:

1. Hitters must keep one foot in the batter's box at all times; no longer meandering around home plate.
2. Teams are limited to a maximum of three mound visits a game. A pitching coach comes out, that's one. The shortstop goes over to discuss a pickoff, that's two. The manager and catcher go out to talk, that's three. No more visits.
3. Pitchers have 20 seconds between pitches. If they take longer — rub the ball up, play with the rosin bag, stare out to center and contemplate their navel, an automatic ball is awarded to the batter.
4. Time between innings is allocated to two minutes and five seconds. At a minute and 45, the hitter must step into the batter's box. Strikes and balls will be allotted for breaking the time rules.
5. Teams will have two minutes and 30 seconds to change pitchers.

Like it or not, the shot clock is coming to baseball.

In the low minors, computer systems are used to experiment with an automated strike zone, replacing the home plate umpire in calling balls and strikes.

Even so, it's not just the Suits making changes, but a 35-year-old GM who's started out changing the way Philly plays baseball. First, he cleaned out the old-school team: Mackanin, Bowa, Stairs, Samuel, Morandini, and McClure, all gone. That's not unusual for a new GM, what's unusual is who he replaced them with.

A manager named Gabe Kapler, who's played the game — 12 years with six teams — but has never managed above Single-A. Like his new boss, Kapler is a proponent of advanced statistics, but also of healthy food. As the Dodgers Director of Player Management, he got rid of junk food in the clubhouse and replaced it with healthy, organic food.

He's been saying things like, "We won't have rules but expectations." On his coaching staff, Kapler has two men who could replace him if his philosophies don't pan out. Bench coach, Rob Thorton, who served with the Yankees as bench coach (4) and third- base coach (6). Kapler's third-base coach, Dusty Wathan, has successfully managed many of the young players in the Phillies system, some of which already arrived, or are coming. He's highly regarded by young players such as Rhys Hoskins, Andrew Knapp, and Aaron Nola.

The Wizard is just starting to put his team together. He traded fan favorite Freddy Galvis, opening up shortstop for the young and talented J.P. Crawford. He signed two, highly regarded late-inning pitchers, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, thus letting his young pitching staff know they might be pulled as early as the fifth — whether they have a lead or not — thus preserving their elbows and shoulders.

Next, the Wizard signed Carlos Santana, a steady 'get on base guy,' an excellent fielder who can serve as mentor to the young players.

The Santana signing wasn't a big name, big money contract kind of deal — although $60 million over three years is nothing to sneeze at — but a guy who will give the Phillies 110 percent every game. Over the past two seasons, he's averaged 95 walks. There'll be a lot of young eyes on him from the dugout watching him take pitches and work the count.

It was a positive and stunning move for the young GM.

The Wizard has more to do. A lot more. Before spring training starts in February, there'll be more trades and perhaps another free agent signing or two. Or maybe not. Klentak is under no pressure to win now, but to put a solid, winning team on the field.

Nevertheless, whatever happens between now and the opening game in Atlanta on March 29, one thing is for sure: The 2018 Phillies will be a fun and interesting team to follow.

I can sense it; feel it on the streets from the people in South Philly and in the Reading Terminal; on the buses and subways of the city.

Hope has returned to Philadelphia.

Merry Christmas.

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