PITTSBURGH - If yesterday was any indication, the bulk of the Phillies' fan base will be in need of a well-regarded heart specialist by the time Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return from their respective lower-body injuries. Then again, if yesterday was any indication, there will be plenty of time to make appointments.
The cynical side in all of us can't help but feel that what we saw during a 1-0 victory over the Pirates is exactly what we are going to get. Roy Halladay tossed eight scoreless innings, a makeshift lineup scratched out one lonesome run, and a 2-hour, 14-minute season opener forced office workers across the region to find alternate ways to kill the day. Five years ago, the T-shirts said, "You Gotta Believe." Now, a new era has dawned. Phillies Baseball: "Get Used To It."
Yet even the most rational of minds could not escape Opening Day without some faint flicker of hope. A 28-year-old, second-year outfielder made sure of that.
Until John Mayberry Jr. sent a fastball rattling into the rightfield corner yesterday afternoon, the Phillies looked to be competing in the first game in baseball history to be called on account of perpetuity. By the end of it, the top four hitters in the lineup had combined for one hit in 14 at-bats. When Ty Wigginton hit a one-out single in the seventh inning, he became just the fourth runner to reach base in the 10 previous offensive frames. Turns out, he also set the stage for a player who 2 days earlier might have been wondering whether his best chance at an everyday job had already passed him by.
Mayberry had finally entered a spring training with the inside track on a regular job. He was coming off a 2011 season in which he hit 15 home runs among 33 extra-base hits in 296 plate appearances, the vast majority coming after an early-season demotion to Triple A. But then fellow outfielder Juan Pierre emerged as a potential leadoff man, and Mayberry posted an on-base percentage of just .259 in Grapefruit League play, and as the Phillies flew to Pittsburgh for yesterday's game, Charlie Manuel seemed to be leaning toward the known commodity.
That changed on Tuesday evening, when the veteran manager pulled Mayberry aside and told him that he would be an Opening Day starter for the first time.
"It was awesome," Mayberry said later. "It was a great feeling to start my first Opening Day, and it was great to just kind of spin off of last year."
Last year, he was a role player in a lineup that featured Raul Ibanez in leftfield. Yesterday, he single-handedly ensured that Halladay's dominant effort would not be rewarded with a loss. In the fourth inning, he chased down a long fly ball off the bat of Neil Walker and made a stretching catch while striding onto the warning track to send Pirates speedster Andrew McCutchen scrambling back to first base. Quantifying defense is a difficult task, but you can count that one as a run saved.
"I thought it was enough of a line drive that it was going to stay in, but I didn't know if he was going to get to it," Halladay said. "The guy is a tremendous outfielder. He's got that sneaky-quick athletic body. He gets to those balls and he makes them look easy. I was fortunate he was out there."
The next inning, Mayberry made another difficult play on a long fly ball, which helped to preserve the scoreless tie he would later break in the seventh. Erik Bedard had spent the majority of the afternoon locating every pitch in his arsenal, particularly a curveball that kept freezing Phillies hitters and catching different corners of the plate. After fouling off a first-pitch changeup, Mayberry picked up a fastball and laced it to rightfield. Many a major league baserunner would have scored from first on the play, but Wigginton is not among them. So Juan Samuel held him up at third and left the rest for Carlos Ruiz, who hit a shallow sacrifice fly that drifted just far enough to beat the tag.
After it was over, Mayberry sat in front of a video screen and watched replays of his at-bats. He learned the fleeting nature of success last year, hitting a walkoff single in a season-opening win over the Astros, then finding himself in the minor leagues after little more than a month.
More often than not, Opening Day means nothing more than the first of 162. For Mayberry, though, it meant a chance. At the very least, he earned himself another.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org