CLEARWATER, Fla. - As the Phillies packed to fly to St. Louis in the late-afternoon hours last July 31, righthander Jon Lieber was experiencing a swirl of conflicting emotions.
The trading deadline had come and gone, and nobody had tapped him on the shoulder and told him general manager Pat Gillick wanted to see him. That was a relief. At the same time, a couple of hours earlier, he had started against the Florida Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. He lasted just 4 2/3 innings. He gave up 13 hits, including three homers, and nine earned runs. His record was 4-8. His earned run average was 6.09.
"They bashed my brains in that game," the team's 2006 Opening Day starter admitted. His season was going from bad to worse and there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it.
Then his phone rang.
From that point, Lieber looked like a different pitcher. He made 11 more starts before the season ended, going 5-3 with a 3.38.
Now it can be told. On the line from the visitor's clubhouse was Marlins manager Joe Girardi, who once upon a time was Lieber's catcher when both played for the Cubs. And he had noticed a couple of things the veteran might want to work on.
"He just mentioned that the hitters said everything that was coming in was just very flat," Lieber said recently after completing his workout at the Carpenter Complex. "Basically, I was underneath the ball. I wasn't on top of the ball like I should have been. And that's why the ball doesn't have that crispness when it gets to the strike zone or that sharp break on my breaking ball. It just kind of stays right there for the hitters to lick their lips at."
And was that the biggest factor in his turnaround?
"Yeah, there's no question," Lieber nodded. "I think at the time, too, I was trying to be too fine instead of being the aggressive pitcher which I consider myself to be, attacking the strike zone. It seemed like after that I kind of sped things up and things started to come back together."
Now, that might seem a little unusual. That an opposing manager, from a division rival no less, would try to help an opponent.
In fact, in the complex ecosystem that is baseball, this sort of thing happens all the time. Pitchers and catchers, in many ways, are a separate fraternity. So are hitters.
When Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was the Cleveland Indians' hitting coach, he noticed one day that the Yankees' Paul O'Neill was wrapping his hands around the bat and holding them higher than he had the year before when he won a batting title. He mentioned what he had seen and O'Neill then went out and got four hits, including two homers.
"That's when I stopped. And I never told [Indians manager Mike] Hargrove what I had told him," Manuel said, a twinkle in his eyes. "I don't do it anymore, but that's common in baseball.
"When I was in Cleveland, we used to be big on figuring out what the pitcher was going to throw. Albert Belle, he could pick up things up when a pitcher was tipping off what he was going to throw. But he used to say, 'Don't tell anybody.' It was just between the hitters because the pitchers would have definitely told another pitcher what he was doing to give pitches away."
Phillies third baseman Abraham Nunez used to play for the Cardinals. During the series at Busch Stadium last year, while he was in a deep slump, Albert Pujols offered some advice. "We talk a lot. He's a guy who's seen me through the years, so when I'm doing something wrong he'll tell me about it," Nunez said.
So maybe it isn't so startling that Girardi, who was fired by the Marlins despite being voted the National League Manager of the Year and now a Fox Sports baseball analyst, tried to help after all.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that after every start Joe's going to call me and tell me what's going on," Lieber said. "But if anybody's going to see it at a glance, he's the perfect guy."
Not only that, a few days later, Lieber got another call. This one was from Marlins bench coach Gary Tuck, also offering some pointers. They became close when Lieber pitched for the Yankees.
None of this, by the way, is a reflection on Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee. It's like when relatives come to visit and immediately comment on how much the kids have grown. The parents, who see them every day, probably didn't notice. The same principle applies to a pitcher's mechanics. Gradual changes that can easily go unnoticed to somebody who watches him throw all the time appear much more evident to a fresh set of eyes.
"I'm not taking anything away from Dubes," Lieber stressed. "We were working on some things also. It was just all-around a frustrating, terrible year. I'm not going to take anything away from this team because this team battled down the stretch. You want to be a part of that so bad, but I didn't hold up my end.
"The bottom line is that this is a new year. You forget about it, work hard in the offseason and get ready for this year. And I'll remember those things, store them away and learn from them and hopefully won't fall into those patterns again."
It remains to be seen, of course, which team might benefit from those lessons learned this year. The Phillies have six starting pitchers in camp and Lieber is considered the most likely to be traded.
It's also worth noting that at the time Girardi and Tuck called to help, both the Phillies and Marlins had losing records and were far off the pace in the wild-card standings. Florida had a $15 million payroll and a rosterful of rookies. The Phillies had just traded Bobby Abreu, David Bell and Cory Lidle. There was no reason to expect that when they met again, for 10 games in September, that both clubs would have a shot at the playoffs.
As it turned out, Florida was eliminated first and the Phillies were knocked out during the final weekend.
No matter. If it had come down to a final game and Lieber was facing the Marlins, he would have done everything he could to try to beat them, knowing that they were trying to do the same to him.