Francisco trying to make own mark, not fill Werth's shoes

Ben Francisco is greeted by Jimmy Rollins after scoring the game-winning run on John Mayberry Jr.'s walk-off single in the ninth.
Ben Francisco is greeted by Jimmy Rollins after scoring the game-winning run on John Mayberry Jr.'s walk-off single in the ninth.
Posted: April 02, 2011

JAYSON WERTH was an excellent player in these parts over the past few years. Not only that, as English poet, songwriter and dramatist

Thomas Haynes Bayly so shrewdly observed, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Thomas Haynes Bayly would have been a Phillies fan.

As everyone knows, Werth doesn't live here anymore. He was lured into a Washington Nationals uniform by the guarantee of $126 million over the next 7 years and, honestly, who among us wouldn't have done the same?

But his departure left a void in rightfield, and whoever stepped into that spot was going to end up being compared not with the reality of what Werth had been, but with an idealized version.

Jayson Werth would have caught that ball.

Jayson Werth would have driven in that run.

 You get the idea. It's not fair, but that's just the way it is.

That's the situation Ben Francisco was thrust into this week when, after Charlie Manuel indulged his inner Hamlet for much of the spring, the manager announced that the 29-year-old former understudy had been promoted to play the role formerly performed by Werth and would be given an extended opportunity to show what he can do.

The following disclaimer is required by law: It was only one game. The importance of what happens on Opening Day is blown way out of proportion. It's a long season. Things can change in a hurry in baseball.

With that out of the way, a few observations.

Benny Fresh isn't shrinking from the task set in front of him. In fact, he chose as his intro music a selection by Jay-Z.

Everyday a star is born

Clap for 'em, clap for 'em, clap for 'em, hey

 "We've got good players," he shrugged after his ninth-inning single helped keep the rally alive that eventually led to a 5-4 walkoff win over the Houston Astros yesterday at Citizens Bank Park. "We've got good players who can play. Everybody was a little bit panicked, but we've got good players here."

But does he understand why people panicked?

"Yeah. But we've still got good players here. Everybody loses guys every year. It's our job to replace them," he said matter-of-factly.

On one frigid afternoon, it all worked out. Wilson Valdez, who is filling in while Chase Utley continues his careful rehab from knee problems, had a double and then singled in the tying run in the ninth. John Mayberry Jr., considered a longshot to make the team out of spring training, had the game-winning hit.

Still, let's not pretend that this was Plan A. Less than 2 weeks earlier, after a particularly ugly exhibition loss to the Yankees at Bright House Field, Manuel's simmering concerns bubbled over.

"We're trying to find our lineup. I ain't seen nobody torch it yet. I've seen guys hit some every now and then," he grumbled at the time.

Did he see strong internal candidates to replace Werth and Utley?

"Their records don't show it. Some of them are 27 to 30 years old. Their former years don't show that."

What about Francisco?

"What about him? If you look, what did he hit last year? Six or seven home runs in how many at-bats? Fifteen or 16 the year before that. How many did he knock in? I saw that one Triple A year where he knocked in 54, hit .300 or something."

For the record, Francisco had six homers and 28 RBI in 179 at-bats last season. His best season in the majors was at Cleveland in 2008, 15 homers and 54 RBI in 447 at-bats.

Manuel also made another point that day. He started talking about the importance of defense, especially in the outfield, how it was important to keep the opposing team from taking an extra base, to set up properly in potential sacrifice fly situations.

Francisco unfurled a couple of nice throws yesterday, showing enough arm to play right. He also dropped a fly ball by Astros catcher Humberto Quintero for an error in the fifth and played a sac fly by shortstop Angel Sanchez off to the side in the seventh, costing him a chance to nail the speedy Michael Bourn from tagging up and scoring.

Manuel was forgiving afterward.

"The ball he missed, of course, he should have caught it. The one ball that he threw to the plate, at first he started to get under it and then it looked like he drifted off to the side and he took an extra step to throw it," he observed. "But defensively, he needs to play, and we'll see how good he is. I don't want to send a negative message about anything, because sometimes when you're not a regular player and you sit on the bench, sometimes it takes you while to get used to playing in the field again, too. That's kind of how I look at it."

It was never a certainty that Francisco would end up being the next rightfielder. It could have been Domonic Brown, had he not broken his hand. It could have been Mayberry, had Francisco not batted .361 this spring and tied for the team lead in homers with five.

But this is how it turned out and it's kind of interesting to remember one guy's opinion way back in February.

"I think Ben Francisco is a better player than people realize," Jayson Werth said. *

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