A CERTAIN DEGREE of narcissism is helpful in a profession that requires a man to stand alone in front of tens of thousands of people and attempt to make solid contact with an object thrown at 92 mph by another man.
It makes sense, then, that one of the more pronounced psychological responses to absolute failure at said task is embarrassment. At least, that was one of the words that Ryan Howard used to describe the feeling when a team fails to record a single hit in nine innings of baseball, as the Phillies failed to do on Sunday afternoon against Dodgers righty Josh Beckett.
Yet baseball, as you might have heard, is a game of failure, and thus of steeling oneself against the mental effects of failure, or recovering from them fast enough to prevent them from compounding. So when Howard arrived at Citizens Bank Park yesterday afternoon, the only memory of the previous day that he allowed into his consciousness was his final at-bat against Beckett, an eight-pitch sequence in the eighth inning in which he took two consecutive balls after falling behind 0-2, then fouled off three straight pitches before lining out to centerfield.
"Beckett had his curveball working," Howard said, "and when you've got a guy throwing a 92 mile-per-hour fastball and then a 69 per-hour curveball, it's tough. But I was able to sit back on that curveball and hit a line drive out to centerfield. I just wanted to stay with that approach."
One can certainly take the view that the vengeance with which the Phillies roared back yesterday is merely evidence that, regardless of what the offensive numbers might say about them, they are simply too inconsistent to break off the kind of 15-out-of-20 or 20-out-of-30 stretch that a team needs to break off to remain in the playoff hunt. After all, in the wake of the 9-0 Memorial Day shellacking that they delivered to Jhoulys Chacin and the Rockies, the numbers say that they are averaging 4.5 runs, six hits, and one home run per game over their last two games, and yet they are a .500 team during that stretch. But forget the big picture for a moment and focus on the daily yield. For all of the legitimate criticisms one can levy at this Phillies team, the constitution of its psyche has rarely been open for question.
The Phillies are stocked with veteran players, and, yesterday, they reacted as veteran players do. Howard hit his eighth home run of the season, a two-run shot in the sixth inning that built the Phillies' lead to 4-0. He finished 3-for-4 with five RBI. Ben Revere went 3-for-5 to raise his batting average to .291 (albeit with a .304 on-base percentage). Chase Utley went 3-for-4 with three runs. Kyle Kendrick pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings. Mike Adams recorded a huge strikeout of Troy Tulowitzki with two men on base in the seventh.
A belief in self has never been a problem for this group. Even after two consecutive playoff-less seasons and a 22-26 start to this one and a top-of-the-rotation starter on the disabled list and another battling a hernia, the Phillies still talk as if they are one breakout performance away from busting out of the tollbooth and saving the city of Philadelphia from bad baseball.
"That's the potential that's possibly there any given game, the way I look at it," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It starts at the top of the order, Ben getting on base and making things happen. Creating some stuff. Chase has been solid. It's good to see Howie connect on some balls and drive some runs in. But once again, it seems like the potential is there. Hopefully it's the start of something with the new series here."
That might sound like a denial of reality, but that's the kind of thought process a man needs to possess if he hopes to make it through a baseball season in something other than the fetal position. Think about the kind of mentality it takes to stand in the box on a day when Josh Beckett is dropping his curveball wherever he wants and say to oneself, "Yeah, I can hit that."
"That's the thing about this game is you can have a bad day, and then you can back the next day and start fresh, 0-0," Howard said. "I think everybody came in here with that mindset and took advantage of it."
Barely 24 hours after feeling the humiliation of history, the Phillies were back where they have been plenty of times this season, talking about a breakout, feeling like they had just produced the start of something special.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy