Roy Oswalt was making a rehab start for the Phillies' top farm team. Not just any rehab start, either. The Phils devoutly hoped it would be a final tuneup before the missing fourth ace was restored to the team's pitching deck.
"Oswalt's been kind of a forgotten man. He's pretty good," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said dryly over the weekend. "He's usually pretty good in the second half and he's throwing the ball well right now, which is a very good sign."
Before Oswalt could get on a plane and rejoin his teammates, before he could be penciled into the rotation this weekend against the defending world champion San Francisco Giants at AT & T Park, he still had to show that he's healthy and that his stuff was where it needs to be to compete against major league hitters.
He threw 90 pitches, 61 for strikes, in six innings. He allowed seven hits but few were well struck. He gave up two runs, although leftfielder Domonic Brown threw Mike Lamb out at the plate in the fourth except that catcher Erik Kratz didn't get the tag down.
His fastball was comfortably 90-91 and topped out at 92.
Afterward, sitting at a table with an ice pack strapped to his shoulder and a red Lehigh Valley cap on his head, he grinned when asked if there was any reason why his next start shouldn't be in the big leagues.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "The back feels great. I don't have any pain. Right now it's just getting back into that rhythm of pitching. Taking 5 weeks off and being off the mound, you've got to get back in the groove of things. I'm probably not going to throw a no-hitter first night out. Wish I could. But I feel pretty good so it's just a matter of executing pitches."
He was better than his line in the box score suggested.
"Mainly, I was just looking for the way guys responded to fastballs," he said. "I only had one guy hit one fastball on the barrel. Most of the guys who blooped hits in were either jam shots or off the end. I could tell the ball was getting on some guys. That's the main thing I was looking for more than anything, seeing if the life was coming back.
"I don't really respond too much to hits. It's according to how the hits are. And I don't look at velocity. I look at how guys swing. If guys get beat at the plate, you know the ball is jumping in on them."
Barring an unforeseen setback when Oswalt throws in the bullpen on Thursday, righthander Kyle Kendrick will be added to the bullpen mix by the end of the week, adding depth to an area Amaro was unable to address at the deadline.
Third baseman Placido Polanco and Brad Lidge are back. Hunter Pence was picked up from the Astros. On paper, at least, the pieces are falling neatly into place for the Phillies.
It was just about this time last year that Oswalt arrived from Houston. His first start was so-so. But on Aug. 5 he began a streak of 10 straight starts in which he had a 1.40 earned run average.
"I'd love to get on another run like that. It's pretty fun when you've got all your pitches working," he said.
Oswalt is a star in the big leagues but, in the minors, certain protocols must be followed. For the IronPigs, closer Michael Schwimer wears Oswalt's familiar No. 44. Oswalt settled for a gray Lehigh Valley road jersey with No. 21 on the back.
It's easy to overlook now that it was never a given that the 33-year-old Oswalt would be able to pitch again this season. He has had back problems in the past. It bothered him earlier in the season.
And when he had to leave his start in St. Louis after two innings on June 23, it wasn't unthinkable that recurring lower-back inflammation meant he had thrown his last pitches of the season.
Back then, even Oswalt hinted that he wasn't sure. "You throw as long as you can throw and when you can't throw no more you can't throw no more," he said philosophically, standing in front of his locker in the Busch Stadium clubhouse. "I'm going to keep throwing as long as I can and hopefully it hasn't gotten to the point where I can't throw no more."
So he was clearly relieved last night to be on the doorstep of coming back just in time to help the Phillies down the stretch. The smile, the relaxed demeanor gave him away.
The Phillies are looking forward to it, too. Heck, it's like they traded for him all over again. The only difference is that this time they didn't even have to give up any prospects to get him.