Pettibone a bright spot for the Phillies

Posted: July 15, 2013

They were called the "Baby Aces," the five starters at single-A Clearwater two years ago who were going to paint the future bright and the corners brighter for the big club eventually.

In baseball, however, nothing is less certain than a young pitcher's development. It's a lot easier to be a prospect than a completed product, and that staff has proved it.

Three of the Baby Aces are gone from the organization - Jarred Cosart in the deal to acquire Hunter Pence from Houston, Trevor May in the trade that brought Ben Revere from Minnesota, and Julio Rodriguez to Baltimore for another minor-leaguer. Brody Colvin is lingering down in Reading with an earned run average that doesn't make a good case for further promotion just yet.

That leaves just Jonathan Pettibone, who not only beat the odds but has been among the few welcome surprises for the Phillies this season. He isn't overpowering and he isn't flashy. What he does - as he did in Saturday's first game - is keep his team in the game and the rest of it up to them. For the 13th time in 16 starts, Pettibone held the other team to three earned runs or fewer, a pretty remarkable consistency for a 23-year-old getting his first major-league opportunity.

If the Phillies had been able to convert what was right in front of them - with the winning run at third base and less than two outs in both the ninth and 10th innings - then they would have also won for the 11th time in Pettibone's 16 starts.

The game isn't quite that simple for the Phillies this year, though, and they lost 5-4 in the 11th, delaying the nightcap and the fireworks while perhaps speeding the team's inevitable 2013 demise.

Not that it was Pettibone's fault. He could have been better, of course, but he put them in position to do much better. That's what he has always brought to a team, and, big leagues or not, that's what he's still doing.

"I'm here. Nothing was guaranteed. My first start was guaranteed, but nothing after it," Pettibone said. "I just want to give the team a chance to win. I figured everything else would take care of itself after that. . . . I think I've done a decent job of doing that. It's why I've made it to the all-star break."

He's made it with a 5-3 record and a 3.89 ERA. Pettibone will never be the star of a staff. He will be one of those guys in the middle of the rotation who grinds out innings and does his work. He's used to the role.

Pettibone wasn't the star of that Clearwater staff, for instance. Rodriguez was 16-7 with a 2.76 ERA. And Pettibone wasn't the pitcher the organization figured would make the quickest trip to the major leagues, but that is how it has worked out. He was ticketed for Lehigh Valley after spring training and got the call when John Lannan didn't get out of April before requiring surgery on his left knee.

To say expectations were low wouldn't be fair, but the opposite wasn't true, either. There weren't any expectations, just as there can never be when a baseball player takes the largest step there is in the game. The Phillies were just going to watch and hope for the best. For much of the season, that isn't a strategy that worked well with other players, but it has been a success with Pettibone.

"Since that first start, I've learned a bunch, mostly mentally," Pettibone said. "I've tinkered with a few things, but the majority has been on the mental side, having that confidence to know I can have success at this level. I have the same approach I had in the minors. Stick with my game plan and trust me stuff. I honestly tell myself over and over to stay within myself, don't do too much, don't get carried away."

The result doesn't break bats or light up the radar gun, but it has worked for Pettibone and the Phillies.

Sometimes, you get lucky, and the Phils were certainly due for some luck with their starting pitching prospects. Along the way, the path has been cleared for Gavin Floyd and J.A. Happ and Carlos Carrasco and Vance Worley and Kyle Drabek and on and on. Maybe you can add Tyler Cloyd, although the organization has cooled on that property, and the clock is ticking on Jesse Biddle, Ethan Martin, and Adam Morgan down in the minors.

Far from getting that spotlight, Pettibone was a supplemental pick after the third round of the 2008 draft, at least partly because other teams assumed he would take a scholarship offer to USC. A phone call from fellow Southern Californian Cole Hamels and a $500,000 signing bonus changed his mind, however, and the payoff for the organization came more quickly than anticipated.

"I just try to keep a basic approach, stay focused, and make it just me and the catcher," Pettibone said.

The Phillies wasted the chance Pettibone gave them on Saturday. They've wasted a lot of chances this season and seem destined to ignore some more before this thing is over.

However 2013 ends up, it won't be a waste for Jonathan Pettibone, though. Maybe he's the only Baby Ace to get this far, and maybe he'll be the only one who does. In a season of disappointments, getting one right still has to count for something.

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