WITH TWO OUTS in the seventh inning and Cesar Hernandez on second base representing the go-ahead run Wednesday, Phillies rightfielder Peter Bourjos stepped to the plate and was issued an intentional walk.
Big deal, right? Except that it really was, at least for those who remember the last homestand finale 16 days earlier, on June 20. Then, in the eighth inning of a 3-1 loss to Arizona amid the Phillies' punchless nine-game losing streak, Bourjos - sporting a .217 average and batting ninth - was lifted in favor of Cody Asche. Now, here he was being walked so Braves lefthanded reliever Hunter Cervenka could face - you guessed it - Asche.
The narrative to Pete Mackanin's managerial career goes like this: He has never been given a fighting chance, never been given a lineup that would allow him to prove his worth, to strategize, to mix and match, to perform the chemistry his more celebrated peers get to perform. Even the two-year deal he received this spring, by both its timing and timeline, implies a wait-and-see approach for a man who has spent more than 40 years of his life performing every possible function the game has to offer.
The paradox, of course, is that we are watching, daily, the man's managerial acumen: strategizing, handling, manipulating a roster full of what-ifs and what-nows. His successes, though - and this continues the theme of his career - are not always or even often measured by final results but rather surprising and unanticipated performances by people like Bourjos, and for that matter, Asche.
The top of Mackanin's lineup back on June 20 looked like this: Cesar Hernandez, batting .248 after that game; Freddy Galvis, hitting .210; Odubel Herrera, .302; and Andres Blanco, .262. Including Herrera's seven home runs up to that point, the group had gone yard a total of 14 times. Before Wednesday's games, 61 players in the major leagues had at least 14 home runs.
Given the group's collective struggles, and those of their lone slugger Maikel Franco, the manager said then he was considering playing Blanco more.
Sixteen days later, Blanco was a ninth-inning double-switch replacement for Tommy Joseph at first. Wednesday, the top of the Phillies' lineup read as follows: Herrera, the All-Star with the .305 average; Bourjos, who has raised his average 57 points in 16 days to .274; Asche, who had five extra-base hits in his previous five starts; and Franco, who hit his fourth home run in four games and finished the six-game homestand with 11 hits in 22 at-bats.
"I choose to believe we're the team that's played the last two weeks," Mackanin said. And the trigger, he believes, has been Bourjos. He has been the game's best hitter since June 21, hitting .463 during a 14-game hitting streak dating back to that day, a streak that was ended when he was issued that intentional walk.
How much credit should the manager get for this? Why not ask the 29-year-old outfielder who, after appearing in 147 games and batting .271 for the Angels in his second big-league season, is with his third organization and still trying to regain that form? Asked repeatedly about his decision to bat him ninth over the first months of this season, Mackanin repeatedly claimed, "I'd like to bat him first or second. He's a better hitter than he's showing."
"I feel like all managers say that publicly, that we believe in him," Bourjos was saying after Wednesday's 4-3 victory over the Braves. "But then their actions dictate something else. Whereas Pete kept running me out there, kept giving me opportunities and believed in me. He not only said it, his actions showed it. And I'm grateful for that. He let me go through some pretty hard times and he stuck with me and I was able to come out of it. And get on a pretty good streak.
"I think especially with a young team like this, you have to be patient. He's definitely patient. He lets guys go out and play and that's what you have to have with a younger team. Just let them be themselves and let them get their feet wet in the big leagues and just kind of guide them in the right direction. But also let them be the players that got them here. Don't try to change them."
Mackanin has spoken repeatedly of how all those years in the game have drilled those very things into his approach. Once a hothead in the Billy Martin mold, he has, it seems, siphoned from every experience he's been through, learned something from superiors possessing a large range of demeanors. He's been so good with this team that it is likely to undermine future assessments of his managerial chops - at least those based simply on wins and losses.
Bourjos is a potential trade-deadline chip. As is closer Jeanmar Gomes, who notched his 23rd save with a perfect ninth. As is Wednesday's starting pitcher, Jeremy Hellickson, who allowed two runs over six innings and who, said the manager, "sets the tone for the whole staff."
Losing any or even all in a few weeks would surely throw a wrench in any continuity this current streak of good baseball suggests. And make it that much harder to convince those not watching closely of Mackanin's true value - beyond the wins and losses.