Thank Hou very much for sending Oswalt to Phillies

Ryan Howard breaks out of the box en route to a third-inning double.
Ryan Howard breaks out of the box en route to a third-inning double.
Posted: April 04, 2011

IT'S NOT EASY being the baseball team wearing the hard hats and putting up those "Pardon Our Dust While We Make Improvements For The Future" signs. Rebuilding always has its trying moments.

Ed Wade doesn't have to apologize for trading Roy Oswalt to the Phillies last July. The Astros' general manager didn't have much of a choice. His team wasn't ready to contend. His veteran ace righthander, 33 years old, was running out of patience. He had publicly asked for a trade but, with veto rights, wasn't going to accept a deal to go just anywhere. And the team controlled his contract only through the 2011 season. After that Oswalt could walk away and leave the only organization he'd ever played for empty-handed.

With not much of a hand to back up his poker face, Wade persuaded the Phillies to give up lefthander J.A. Happ, who plays a prominent role in the Astros' hopes and dreams. He got outfielder Anthony Gose, who was flipped to the Blue Jays for starting first baseman Brett Wallace. He got shortstop Jonathan Villar, who was rated Houston's third-best prospect by Baseball America coming into this season. Not bad.

That couldn't have made it any easier to sit and watch what happened at Citizens Bank Park yesterday afternoon, though.

Oswalt, making the 304th start of his stellar career but first against the Astros, took charge early and picked up a workmanlike, 7-3 win against the team that will probably retire his number someday.

That's pretty much the same way the Phillies got Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee the first time, cherry-picking veteran talent from teams that aren't close enough to having a chance to win or who can't afford what the market will bear when the players are eligible for free agency.

It's a hard fact of modern baseball life. But there's another side to it, too. When a pitcher spends his entire career in one spot, going back to face that team as an outsider has to be a little bit of an out-of-body experience.

"I really didn't know what to expect when I got out there. It was a little bit different, being there for so long. And I still know some of the faces over there. When you first start facing some of the guys you played with, it's like spring training, you know?" said Oswalt, who gave up two runs on five hits in his six innings. "It's the only time you face your own guys. You know some of their weaknesses and their strengths and they kind of know you, too. They've been playing behind you for a while. So it was a little bit different."

Coincidentally, Oswalt's turn in the rotation last August fell in a game against Washington the day before a four-game series against the Astros.

It also was strange for the Astros who were left behind.

"Roy is one of the best pitchers in the game," said rightfielder Hunter Pence, whose homer and two singles accounted for more than half the hits Oswalt allowed. "He has every pitch you can have."

Added third baseman Chris Johnson: "It was weird, a little awkward, because when I got called up he was one of the guys who was so good to me. Always telling me stuff and taking care of me. So it was weird."

The Phillies staked Oswalt to a 5-0 lead yesterday. That itself sort of made Oswalt feel like he was looking into a funhouse mirror. Let's just say that he didn't get much run support before he was traded last season.

"Yeah, last year they gave me one. And I couldn't hold it," he said with a slight chuckle. "You don't really think about that while you're out there. When you get two or three runs ahead, you feel like you should be able to get through six or seven and keep the game pretty close.

"It's nice. Any time you get five or six runs, it gives you a little bit of cushion to work with, especially when you score some runs early. Sometimes you feed them a few too many fastballs because you've got such a big lead and you don't want to put somebody on and then somebody runs into a ball. You get in trouble sometimes that way. But when you have five or six runs, it lets you breathe out there a little bit."

Oswalt had a 6.11 earned run average in the exhibition season and narrowly escaped injury when struck by a line drive. None of that mattered yesterday when he used a mid-90s fastball early and his breaking stuff later to get the job done.

And what might really concern the rest of the National League is that he said that part of his motivation was not to beat his old team, but to keep up with what the Halladays and the Lees did in their starts before him.

"The first two guys went out there and threw unbelievable. You don't want to be the odd man out. It's going to push us all the way through the year. You don't want to be the guy who goes out there and gives it up," he said. "We feed off each other, for sure."

And the Astros, Blue Jays and Indians can only hope to be in the position of being able to pick up pitchers like that rather than being forced to trade them away.

Send email to hagenp@phillynews.com

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