(Picture via nola.com — Kinda makes you think)
I used to have this — for lack of a better term let’s call it a — ‘talent.’
You could name a random date between the months of April-October, and for an approximately seven-year span from 2006-2012, I could tell you what the Phillies did on said date. Not just whether they won or lost but final score, opponent, winning and losing pitchers, how runs were scored — everything.
Friends of mine who knew about it would tell friends of theirs. It wasn’t totally unusual to walk into a room and be suddenly greeted with:
“September 26, 2008.”
Let me think for a second. They beat the Nationals, 8-4. Wait, maybe it was 7-4, dammit, no, it was definitely 8-4. Joe Blanton got the win. Ryan Howard hit a three-run homer to center field in the first inning that Lastings Milledge leaped at the wall for but couldn’t bring back. Charlie Manuel got ejected in the top of the ninth inning just for the hell of it, and the Phillies put themselves in position to clinch their second consecutive NL East title the following day.
I think this whole thing started somewhere around May 12, 2006, when a then 22-year old Cole Hamels made his Major League debut on a Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds. Five shutout innings with only one hit allowed. I don’t recall ever being asked that date, but I wish I had.
Recently that ‘talent’ or whatever you want to call it has evaporated some. Name a random date from 2006-2012, and I’ll be very rusty trying to come up with the answer. Name one between 2013-2015, and I likely won’t know it. Combine less accessibility to games on TV along with the Phillies recent slide, and it had to end at some point. Shelling out money for MLB.TV to watch a team that is going to flirt with a franchise record for losses just isn’t that tempting.
I can count on less than two hands how many Phillies game I have watched so far in their hellacious first half of the season that left them with the worst record in baseball at the All-Star break. Tonight though, I’ll get one closer to double digits when Aaron Nola steps on the mound at Citizens Bank Park and throws his first pitch in the majors shortly after 7 p.m.
Hope is a beautiful thing, and tonight it comes in the form of a 22-year old right-handed pitcher who skyrocketed through the Phillies minor league system to the tune of a 2.57 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning after being drafted out of LSU last summer, leaving the team’s much-maligned front office almost no choice but to call him up to the show.
How Nola fares specifically tonight in his first start is arguably irrelevant in the long run. He won’t save the Phillies from 100 losses and the worst record in baseball this season, not with his perceived innings limit and the other eight players in the starting lineup with him. He won’t rescue them from the baseball hell that a laundry list of miscalculated personnel decisions has subjected them to for next season or two. He won’t automatically make them a contender again.
No, not even close. Nola won’t single-handedly do any of that, but perhaps it is fitting that his initial taste of major league baseball comes against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that rarely visits Citizens Bank Park but was here for a six-day stretch when baseball in Philadelphia was at its happiest over the past three and a half decades.
Hamels pitched like an ace that he would ultimately become. Chase Utley deposited a ball in the right field seats. Brad Lidge fell to his knees in celebration, and it rained a lot, so much that a mostly likable bunch of Rays players and coaches who played in the 2008 World Series decided to complain about Mother Nature among other things nearly seven years later.
Nola’s arm will not make that scene any more recent, but it can make the current mess a bit less painful and create the notion that better days are ahead even if they aren’t yet visible.
It won’t bring back the rally towels, and the scoreboard watching in late September, and the magical October nights when more than 45,000 fans rocked a ballpark to its core, but should those one day return over the next decade, Nola will likely be a driving force behind it.
For such a short word, it’s a really powerful one, driving decisions that without it would make little to no sense, like being excited to watch a 33-62 baseball team in a bar on a random Tuesday night.
July 21, 2015.
Nine years from now, if I remember one thing from this nightmarish season, it will be whatever happens tonight.