Minor league hitters feast on Oswalt's fastball

Roy Oswalt allowed three earned runs in five innings in his first rehab start in Clearwater. (Photo by Tim Boyles)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Put one Phillies All-Star player in a Florida rehab game, it's a note on the end of a game story.

Put two All-Star-level players in a Florida rehab game and ballwriters are detoured during a Phillies road trip and dispatched to the scene.

Put three All-Star-caliber players in the same rehab game, including the starting battery, and it's a Comcast SportsNet telecast.

They fly banners in Tampa International Airport: "Welcome Rehabbing Phillies."

While it was cool to be at Bright House Field for that great Thursday-night institution - two-beers-for-the-price-of-one night - this was about the chance to see the progress made toward a return to action by long-term DL inhabitant Chase Utley and his short-term DL brethren Carlos Ruiz and Four Aces righthander Roy Oswalt. The Little O was my focus.

I watched Utley against extended-spring-training opposition last Saturday, when he went 5-for-7 with a pair of homers against suspect Blue Jays lefthanders. He traveled to Tampa on Monday and managed just an infield hit in six ABs. But in both games, the second baseman ran well - legging out two infield hits. He fielded without difficulty and survived a couple of stops and starts, one of the things that was angering his patellar tendinitis.

So far, so good for the Phillies' most problematic long-term lineup hole, the No. 3.

In three at-bats over five innings, Utley struck out swinging, batting No. 2 ahead of Ruiz, walked in the fourth, then deposited a home run onto the rightfield berm off West Palm Beach Cardinals righthander Joe Kelly. Three home runs in four games is a good result for Chase, who will be flying to Philly and will see his next action closer to home.

The Triple A IronPigs, Double A Reading Phillies and low-Class A Lakewood BlueClaws are home over the weekend. Reading would seem to be the logical next phase.

Chase notched another check mark on his must-do list last night. It was his first back-to-back game.

Ruiz looked fine when I saw him in back-to-back games, one catching, the other at DH against extended-spring-training pitching at the minor league complex. All you really looked for there was his catching mechanics. And Chooch displayed none of the symptoms of a man with a bum lower back. He received the ball well, got up and down fluidly and his swing was unrestricted. He told Paul Hagen he felt fine and I believe him.

But Roy Oswalt was a different matter.

He had no fastball the night he was shockingly off form in his last start before taking a leave of absence in Mississippi to assist with the cleanup of his tornado battered community and personal property. That start on April 26, where he threw changeup after changeup and curve after curve, concealed a fastball that barely tickled 90 mph.

I first saw the smallish righthander in the 2000 Olympics. He was a drop-and-drive, over-the-top power pitcher for whom Team USA manager Tommy Lasorda predicted greatness.

But the sudden drop in velocity and his reliance on secondary pitches was a predictor of a physical problem he apparently had been trying to throw his way through since spring training. There was speculation that he injured his back helping with the cleanup back home. But he was driving a bulldozer, not pushing one.

The plan was for him to pitch five innings last night, then start Tuesday against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

That appears to be a whistling-past-graveyards longshot now. His fastball topped out at just 91 mph, according to one Scout Row clocker. The best my pocket radar gizmo registered was 88 mph on his final pitch of the first inning, a called third strike to cleanup hitter Xavier Scruggs. But my minigun has been unreliable lately and a number of Oswalt pitches failed to register, so I'll go with the scout.

Problem was, every time Roy challenged one of those very young hitters, his fastball was getting turned around. And once more, he relied more and more on his slow curve and changeup.

His first pitch, a fastball, was ripped to left by leadoff hitter Rainel Rosario. With one out in the fourth, outfielder Edgar Lara boomed a double over the head of rightfielder Leandro Castro, once more a fastball.

He faced 23 hitters in five innings, allowing three runs and seven hits. There was no at-bat more revealing than one in his final inning with two outs and a runner on third.

No. 3-hole hitter Zach Cox, a third baseman who undid Kelly on a pair of groundballs he swiped at as if the baseball was bearing plague bacillus, was the hitter.

Oswalt served the first-rounder from the University of Arkansas a half-dozen consecutive offspeed pitches, running the count to 3-2. He challenged Cox with a fastball. The kid drilled it through the box for an RBI single and Scruggs ripped an RBI double into the leftfield corner.

Manager Dusty Wathan came to the mound. Oswalt wanted to finish the inning and struck out Edgar Lara. His rehab outing over, the Phils' No. 3 starter scowled down the leftfield line to the clubhouse, ignoring pleas for his autograph.

One of the game's premier drop-and-drive pitchers was more drop-and-duck. But he saved his best duck for last.

Roy was not available to the small media contingent, some of whom had detoured on the way from Miami to Atlanta to see him pitch.

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