Paul Hagen | Phillies got lucky with Lieber

Posted: April 26, 2007

PLAYERS USED TO pore over the Racing Form and girlie magazines. Now they spend hours analyzing game video, often even ducking into the clubhouse between innings to look at their last at-bat.

Orioles manager Earl Weaver used to keep track of how his hitters did against different pitchers on hand-written index cards he kept in a shoebox. Now there are computer programs that can break down an at-bat by count, type of pitch, and location. Scouts and minor league managers carry laptops and file their reports electronically.

Baseball, like the rest of the world, has gone high-tech.

All this has proved is that you can't program this oh-so-human game.

There are still times when a batter will be badly fooled, hit the ball off the end of the bat and still get a hit when it floats just over the infield. Or times when the pitcher will leave a meatball hanging out over the middle of the plate, breathing a sigh or relief when it's popped up.

The margin between winning and losing can be small: which side of the foul line a hooking line drive lands on, whether a long fly barely clears the wall or is caught at the back of the warning track.

And when that happens, more than likely one baseball man will nudge another. "It's better to be lucky than good," he'll say, nodding sagely.

It's starting to look as if the Phillies might have gotten lucky with Jon Lieber.

As it turns out, they made a mistake last December when they assumed, after the trade that netted Freddy Garcia from the White Sox left them with one more starter (six) than spots in the rotation (five), that they could easily flip Lieber to fill another need.

That became evident when spring training started and there was still a locker with

Lieber's name above it in the Clearwater clubhouse.

And, as it all played out, they doubled down on that miscalculation with the square-peg-in-a-round-hole attempt to make Lieber a reliever late in spring training. That became clear when the 37-year-old expressed his excitement about the move by saying, "It's either 29 other teams really don't like me or [the Phillies] are asking too much. It's one or the other."

A few days later, he strained a rib-cage muscle and had to open the season on the disabled list. When he returned, he had an 11.57 earned run average after two relief outings. Gee, what a surprise.

Sometimes, though, two wrongs can make a right.

Opening Day starter Brett Myers was moved to the bullpen last week. That remains a controversial move - "What made Columbus famous? He took a risk," manager Charlie Manuel said - but on paper makes the Phillies a better team.

And with that, Lieber found himself back in the rotation.

He was the winning pitcher last night as the Phillies whomped the Washington Nationals, 9-3, at Citizens Bank Park for their fifth straight win. He took a perfect game into the fourth. He ended up pitching six innings, allowing two runs. He threw 86 pitches, an amazing 64 of them for strikes.

In his first start, Friday in Cincinnati, he pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings, but didn't get a decision.

His ERA in the rotation: 1.54.

If Lieber sees the irony in this situation, if he is having an inner chuckle over the way all this is un-folding, he is keeping it to himself.

Asked about it after last night's game, a small smile briefly flickered across his face. Then he composed himself. "No comment," he said solemnly.

But doesn't his success since the latest change demonstrate that he's more comfortable in the rotation?

"I was comfortable down there, too," he said.

Is he happier as a starter?

"I was happy down there, too," he insisted.

All right, then.

It's still early, of course. But Lieber went 5-3, 3.38 in his final 11 starts last season, including a pair of complete games. He's pitching for a contract in 2008. He had a 1.13 ERA in spring training.

So, yeah, the Phillies made more than one mistake with

Lieber. They might even be a little embarrased by that, but at least it's all working out for them at the moment. "I like the way our rotation sets up right now," Manuel said after the game.

You want to talk about mistakes? What about all the other teams who are already desperate for starting pitching who didn't trade for him when they had the chance? How dumb must they feel right now? *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com.

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