HE GALLOPED in from the bullpen on a chariot made of solid gold, lightning bolts shooting from his eyes, flames streaming from his arms, thunder booming from the heavens as all in attendance threw themselves at his mercy.
Eh, not quite.
"I thought I was going to fall down," Kenny Giles said. "My legs were a little jellied."
Giles, a 23-year-old righthander whose ability to throw a fastball 100 miles per hour had made him a bit of a cause celebre amongst a fan base fatigued by some of the performances it had seen from the Phillies' bullpen, made his much-anticipated major league debut yesterday. In doing so he helped to validate the organization's careful decision-making throughout the first couple of months of the season.
Yes, the kid throws hard. Real hard. Wil Nieves ranked his velocity third on the list of pitchers he has caught, behind Stephen Strasburg and Bobby Jenks during their early years (and, coincidentally, just ahead of teammate Jake Diekman, who hit 100 on the gun earlier this week and was sitting two locker stalls down from Nieves after yesterday's 7-2 win over the Padres). According to pitchFx data recorded by Major League Baseball's tracking system, Giles maxed out at 99.4 yesterday, but his first fastball flashed 100 on the stadium radar gun, and the sparse crowd that stuck around through a steady rain let him know it.
It was a fun moment for all involved. The gelatinous entrance, the windup, the thwack of ball on leather, the strike call, and, after a dramatic pause for the stadium gun to compute what it just saw, a load roar as the magic number appeared on the scoreboard. It was fun for a Phillies team that was two strikes away from its first three-game winning streak since May 20. It was fun for a crowd that had spent much of the season watching a long line of groan-inducing performances from righthanded relievers (most of them concentrated in the earlier part of the schedule). And, of course, it was fun for Giles, who one year ago was on the disabled list at Class A Clearwater, in the middle of a year that would end with him walking 19 batters and allowing three home runs in 24 innings of low-level, minor league baseball.
"All I wanted to do was get out there and get it over with," Giles said. "I didn't care how it turned out to be, I just wanted to get that one out of the way."
Manager Ryne Sandberg made him wait, determined to find a good spot to introduce the young fireballer to the major leagues. A five-run lead at the start of the ninth inning was not good enough: lefty Mario Hollands recorded the first two outs before Sandberg finally trotted out to the mound and summoned Giles.
"I was just trying to pick a spot to get him in there so he could get the feel of things," the manager said.
At several points while discussing Giles with the media, Sandberg allowed the peculiar, knowing smile of his to creep across his face. In fact, there were smiles all around the Phillies' clubhouse in the wake of their win. Nieves, who was behind the plate in place of Carlos Ruiz, smiled when talking about the life on the new guy's fastball. Righthander Kyle Kendrick, who earned the win, smiled when talking about the reputation that preceded Giles. Maybe we're digging too far for the deep meaning of one out, but the positive energy in the clubhouse is the kind the players will need to sustain them for the rest of the season. Barring a dramatic change of identity over the next month, the story of 2014 is going to be the older players who end up departing via trade, and the younger ones who are tasked with shining some light on the future.
Giles is a prime example of one of those young players. The Phillies do not view him as a bullpen savior, not for this year, anyway.
"We'll find spots for him and get him comfortable and let him continue to grow here," Sandberg said.
The record will always reflect that his first at-bat resulted in a home run, even if it appeared to be a routine fly ball off the bat of Yasmani Grandal, who said of the 3-1 fastball he hit: "I was going to swing even if it was 10 feet over my head."
The 10 pitches Giles threw were a perfect summation of who he is: a couple of 99-point-something per hour fastballs on the outside corner for called strikes; one in the dirt; a couple high and outside; a beautiful slider for a called strike; and a wild one that prompted a wild swing-and-miss from Alexi Amarista to end the game. He will need to throw strikes consistently, and he will need to keep the ball down, because, as Grandal showed, when hitters make contact, the ball often ends up in the air (he had a 0.54 ground-ball rate in the minors this season).
But the opportunity to watch Giles develop is going to be a selling point for this team, because of his arsenal, and because of the zeal with which he approaches the game. Asked about the delayed cheer after the velo reading on his first pitch, the new guy responded, "I want to throw the next pitch before they start cheering."
He said he wanted to see if he could beat his previous velocity reading. "I didn't accomplish that," he said (the next pitch registered at 98).
Still, it will be fun watching him try.