Worley helps Phillies dream rotation from becoming a nightmare

(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 30, 2011

If all goes well, which would be a switch in itself, then Phillies starter Joe Blanton will throw off a mound Monday in Clearwater, Fla. That momentous session in the bullpen might not sound like a lot, but it has been six weeks since Blanton's right elbow wouldn't unkink as he warmed for a start. That's a long time between trips to the mound for any pitcher, so the Phils will take what they can get.

What they haven't gotten during Blanton's absence is assurance that he will be back in the rotation at all. Multiple MRI inspections revealed no damage in the elbow area, nothing that would explain the pain and swelling, or, more to the point, predict whether Blanton's future has one.

Meanwhile, Roy Oswalt will get a second opinion on his aching back this Friday in Dallas. It will be surprising if continued rest is not the recommendation. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. bristled when it was reported that Oswalt would not return until August. Amaro said it's reasonable to think Oswalt will be back in late July.

Oh, well then.

And this is why you construct a dream rotation. Because baseball has a way of giving a few fitful nights to even a dream scenario. With Blanton and Oswalt out, the Phillies have been fine so far, thanks to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. It might keep going just like that for the rest of the season, but not necessarily.

With that in mind, everyone in the organization leaned forward just a little more Wednesday night to study how rookie starter Vance Worley handled a big game with a playoff atmosphere. He had pitched pretty well in his six previous starts, but hadn't seen a spot like this one yet. The Phillies could need Worley in the rotation for the real playoffs, and they might as well start finding out if he's ready.

"This is a good test for him," manager Charlie Manuel said before the game. "He's facing a good lineup with a lot of good lefthanded hitters. As long as he keeps us in the game, that's going to tell you a whole lot."

Worley did that and more against the Red Sox, limiting them to five hits and one run in his longest start of the season. He went seven efficient innings and faced more than four batters in an inning only once. As is the case with him, he also worked some deep counts, had some trouble putting guys away, and piled up his pitch count, which has gotten him in trouble before.

Still, heading into the seventh, with Worley having already thrown 96 pitches, Manuel had enough confidence to send him back out there. Maybe he had a corresponding lack of confidence in the patched-together bullpen, but either way, Worley threw past the sixth inning of a major-league start for the first time in his career.

"I try to treat every game like it's my last one here," Worley said after getting the decision in the 2-1 win over Boston. "I know because of the injuries that I might have more time and opportunity than I had before, but I don't want to treat things any different. I don't know how long I'll be here and I want to set myself up to stay as long as possible."

Worley mixed his good fastball with his cut fastball, blended in his change-up, and threw a smattering of curveballs and sliders just to show them. His only real mistake of the game, and it wasn't much of one, came when Boston pitcher John Lackey reached down and hit a decent low fastball into deep center field for an RBI double in the fifth inning. That was the only inning in which the Red Sox had more than one hit off Worley.

"Sooner or later, he had to pitch seven or eight innings. We thought that tonight was a good night to let him go," Manuel said. "Games like tonight make him kind of grow up and see how good he can be. Pitching like that has to be great for his confidence."

With the exception of one bad start at the end of May in New York, Worley has been exceptionally consistent, with a 3-1 record and a 1.54 ERA in his other six starts, including Wednesday's against Boston. The only remaining questions were his ability to go deeper into games and his readiness for pressurized tests.

"I think a game like this shows I can compete at this level against top talent," Worley said. "I know they're a good hitting club. They paid a lot of guys to do well this year. To go out there against them and do that, I'm satisfied."

The Phillies organization would probably agree. The dream rotation is still mostly a dream, but there will be other nights when it will take some additional help to rest easily. Vance Worley hopes to be part of the solution, and on Wednesday night, in a big game against a championship-caliber team, it was easy to imagine the months had fallen away into autumn and the 23-year-old's own dream had actually happened, too.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/postpatterns

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