Paul Hagen: Ex-Phils Myers & Happ return in role of spoiler

Posted: August 23, 2010

ONE DAY Derrek Lee is playing for the Cubs, an established fan favorite. Next thing, he's driving to Wrigley Field . . . but going to the visitor's clubhouse and putting on an Atlanta Braves gray road uniform.

That's the way it goes in baseball these days. Players sometimes seem to change costumes as quickly as a Broadway actor between scenes.

The kicker in all this is that it's always fascinating to watch players facing guys who were so recently teammates. Some seem to elevate their game, others might try a little too hard and stumble instead.

That's why there's a drama inside a psychology test wrapped in a four-game series against the Astros beginning tonight at Citizens Bank Park. Pitching for Houston tonight, Brett Myers. Starting Wednesday, J.A. Happ.

Both played significant roles in the Phillies' recent success. Neither left on his own terms. Myers was abruptly informed that the team had no intention of bringing him back the day after the World Series ended last November. Happ, who dangled while his name was bandied about in trade rumors, went to the Astros as part of the package that brought Roy Oswalt here shortly before the deadline.

They are different personalities. Myers is loud and extroverted. Happ is soft-spoken and largely keeps to himself.

"I think there's always a little more motivation to pitch well against your old team. I'm sure Brett has a lot of motivation to try to beat us. And, of course, [Happ], too. We've just got to be ready for them," said pitching coach Rich Dubee, who spends more time with the staff than any of the other coaches. "I think Brett will probably be pretty amped up where J.A. will probably be as level-headed as he always is. I kind of hope J.A. will be revved up because maybe he'll get out of his game."

Could Myers be overly eager to make a point?

"That can happen at times. But they've been through some big wars in the past. So I'm sure they'll both be on top of their game," Dubee shrugged.

Myers' outsized personality combined with a couple of well-publicized off-the-field incidents likely played a role in general manager Ruben Amaro's decision not to re-sign him when he became a free agent last offseason, even though he was the sort of versatile, payroll-friendly pitcher they publicly stated they were looking for.

But he's still just 29 years old, has a 3.11 earned run average and has lasted at least six innings in 25 straight starts. The Houston Chronicle recently referred to him as "old reliable." A LexisNexis search did not unearth that description being applied to him at any point during his time here.

A former Phillies No. 1 draft choice, this will be the first time he's faced his former team in a regular-season game. He pitched against the Phillies in Clearwater this spring - and had to leave the game in the sixth inning when he suffered a mild groin strain - but that really doesn't count.

Dubee pointed out that when Roy Halladay pitched against the Blue Jays in the Grapefruit League, "He didn't lean on it too hard. Then when you saw him here in the regular season he pitched great."

Doc spun seven shutout innings that night.

Happ will be facing the Phillies for the first time under any circumstances. In five starts since the trade, he's 2-3 with a 4.62 ERA. While holding opponents to a .205 batting average, he has been uncharacteristically hurt by walks: 17 in 25 1/3 innings.

How the two pitchers react is of more than passing interest. The Astros aren't going to the playoffs this season, but they aren't pushovers, either. Since a 17-34 start they have a winning record: 37-35.

And the Phillies' offense has continued to sputter, scoring a total of four runs in the three games leading up to yesterday's 6-0 win over the Nationals. Plus, as the schedule continues to shorten, they still find themselves trailing the Braves by 2 1/2 games in the National League East.

Any misstep now could turn out to be costly later.

"I think we know them pretty good," manager Charlie Manuel said of Myers and Happ. "What do I think of them? I think we've got to take it to them, that's what I think."

There are plenty of Astros-Phillies angles. Former Phillies general manager Ed Wade is now the Astros' GM. He signed Myers and traded for Happ. He also traded Brad Lidge to the Phillies before the 2008 season. One of the players the Astros got in return, Michael Bourn, is now their starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter.

Nelson Figueroa, who pitched for the Phillies earlier this year, started Houston's win over Florida yesterday. Manager Brad Mills was a Phillies coach under Terry Francona. And, of course, there's Oswalt. It's too bad he pitched yesterday or this series would have been even more of a reunion.

The focus this week, though, will be on Myers and Happ. Each had a hand in helping the Phillies get to the playoffs and World Series. Each could play a part of keeping them out this season.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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