CLEARWATER, Fla. - Life changes fast. You go to bed as Shemp and you wake up as the fourth stooge. You go to bed as Kathie Lee and you wake up as the lady that Kelly Ripa replaced. You go to bed as Chris Brown and you wake up as, well, Chris Brown.
Joe Blanton knows the feeling better than most. Last spring, he was sitting at a table fielding questions about how it felt to be a part of one of the greatest rotations ever assembled. By early August, he was working out in Clearwater wondering if he would ever pitch as a Phillie again.
"I didn't feel like part of the team because I wasn't around the guys," he said. "I felt distant."
The only thing distant yesterday was the elbow impingement that cost Blanton the bulk of the 2011 season. In its place is a question: Might the memories of Roy Oswalt soon follow?
After Blanton tossed two scoreless innings against the Yankees in his Grapefruit League debut, the veteran righthander acknowledged that he still must prove to the outside world that he is healthy. But most of his focus was on his mechanics and the results that they produced: five ground-ball outs, two ground-ball singles and a strikeout of former teammate Raul Ibanez.
It was a reminder, however brief, of the potential the Phillies rotation still possesses. Oswalt might be sitting at home in Mississippi waiting for an offer he deems fit, but that does not mean the Phillies must resign themselves to a season of unsteady play in his stead. For all the dominance that Oswalt displayed down the stretch in 2010, it is easy to forget that the Phillies went 11-12 in his 23 starts last season. It is easy to forget that they went 2-3 in his five postseason appearances with the team, a stretch in which he struck out 24 and walked five but also allowed four home runs. It is easy to forget about the five runs he allowed in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
None of that should diminish what Oswalt has accomplished in his career. If the veteran righthander was willing to rejoin the Phillies on a salary that jibed with their payroll, Ruben Amaro Jr. would drive a bulldozer down to Weir to make it happen. But you have to acknowledge that, when all was said and done, the Four Aces fell one short of their billing last season. Every team in the majors would have gladly taken Oswalt's 3.69 ERA and 2.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the back end of their rotation. At the same time, every team in the majors doesn't have a veteran like Blanton ready to rejoin the fray.
In Oswalt's final 19 starts of 2011, he went 6-10 with a 4.07 ERA in 115 innings. In Blanton's final 19 starts of 2010, he went 7-1 with a 3.77 ERA in 121 2/3 innings. Oswalt finished 2011 with 139 innings and a 3.69 ERA in 23 starts. Blanton finished the 2009 season with 151 innings and a 3.16 ERA in his final 23 starts. The Phillies' only World Series victory in the past 3 decades came in a postseason in which Blanton held a starring role. Everybody remembers the home run he hit. But the Phillies also won each of the three games he started.
"I think it is easy to forget when you have the guys up top who are as good as they are, to be completely honest," Blanton said. "Those are three of the best. I mean, when three guys finish in the Top Five in the Cy Young, that's going to block out a lot of people."
Blanton will never be regarded in the same class as the Roy Halladays and Cliff Lees and Cole Hamels of the world. Oswalt will. At the same time, the Phillies gave Blanton a 3-year, $24 million contract after the 2009 season because they viewed him as an integral piece of their rotation. That year, he went 12-8 with a 4.05 ERA, 7.5 strikeouts-per-nine and 2.7 walks-per-nine. Compare those numbers to the ones Oswalt posted last season and you'll find plenty of reason for optimism.
His health remains a question mark. But at 31 years old and in the final year of his contract, Blanton has both the ability and the financial incentive to replace the production the Phillies lost when they declined Oswalt's option. After a lost season, Shemp just might rise again.
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