CLEARWATER, Fla. - When searching for adjectives to describe the Phillies' decision to tap Brett Myers as their Opening Day starter - relegating the unveiling of presumed ace Cole Hamels to the second game, April 2 - "curious" would seem the best place to start.
Except, when you listen to their rationale, it doesn't sound so curious after all.
It's easy to forget that Myers pitched into the eighth inning in the last Opening Day, holding Atlanta to three runs and four hits and striking out nine in a game the Phillies ultimately lost, 5-3. And it's even easier to downplay the psychological significance that accompanies the decision to place the ball in Myers' hands this time around. The Phils open March 31 at home against Washington.
But with closer Brad Lidge injured and Myers' success in that role last season, the Phillies wanted to make sure Myers knows they expect him to pitch, and pitch well, in the starting rotation.
"I don't want Brett looking forward to being a closer," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "I want Brett preparing for Opening Day."
The Phillies decided the best way to accomplish that was to announce Myers as their starter an hour before the scheduled start of last night's rained-out exhibition against Florida State at Bright House Field.
Manager Charlie Manuel didn't pinpoint a reason why he made the decision, mentioning both setting up the rotation "the way we want it" and the following week's series against the Mets as factors.
All spring training, Manuel has gone out of his way to stress the fact that he views Myers as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. At one point about a week ago, he called Myers and Hamels "No. 1 and No. 1A." Yesterday, while sitting behind a desk in the manager's office at Bright House Field, he told reporters that "both of them, to me, are No. 1."
From a mental perspective, Myers appears to have the most to gain from getting the ball on Opening Day. After the team announced that Lidge would undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and be sidelined 3 to 6 weeks, Dubee said he was concerned that Myers might get the impression that he would eventually end up back in the bullpen, as he did last season when the Phillies needed a replacement for then-closer Tom Gordon.
Though Myers, 27, has said he is more than willing to return to the rotation, he has also made no secret of his love for closing games. Last season, he converted 21 of 24 save opportunities and was a big factor for the Phillies in their late-season charge to the National League East title.
But Manuel and Dubee also wanted to make sure Myers understands how much they appreciate his self-sacrifice the past year. The righty will be a free agent following the 2009 season, which gives him plenty of incentive to find a specific role and excel in it before he hits the market. Nevertheless, Myers, who won 50 games as a starter from 2003-06, didn't complain when the team asked him to move to the bullpen. And he didn't complain when they asked him to move back to the rotation.
"Unselfishly, Brett went into the bullpen last year," Dubee said. "At first, it was probably a shock to him. He accepted it and did a hell of a job for us. He showed [he was] a pretty good team player by doing so. So part of it is a reward for him."
In his career, Myers is 59-47 with a 4.34 ERA, 773 strikeouts and 325 walks. He has pitched in 193 games, 143 of them starts.
"I'm open to anything," Myers said. "I liked closing, but I'm here to help the team. I can obviously do both. I've done both pretty well, so hopefully I can continue to succeed in what my role is this year."
Throughout the offseason, Manuel and Dubee contemplated making Myers their Opening Day starter. Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday he "absolutely" agrees with the decision.
Manuel said he talked with Hamels, who went 15-5 with a 3.39 ERA last season, and that the lefthander was "definitely OK" with the situation.
"We had a good conversation," Manuel said. "I told him look, he was our No. 1 starter last year and he had a big year."
Hamels was unavailable to speak with the media by the time Manuel made the announcement.
After the Phillies' three-game series with Washington, they play four games against Cincinnati before traveling to New York to face the Mets. Myers could conceivably make his second start in the last game against the Mets, depending on how the team uses a scheduled off day between the first and second games. But Dubee said it is far too early to delve into such a scenario. *