Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Oswalt a left field choice

WhgbHlSqEveryone was smiling on Tuesday night when the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting pitcher Roy Oswalt ran out to play left field against the Houston Astros. 

Well, perhaps not Ryan Howard.  The Phillies’ first baseman was still seething after being ejected from the game in the bottom of the fourteenth inning: the very act that left manager Charlie Manuel in the unenviable position of choosing between Oswalt and Joe Blanton as the only two available options to replace the slugger.

And Manuel himself probably wasn’t grinning much either.  Having dealt with injuries to several key players in recent months, the last thing he wanted to do was send his number two starter into the outfield and risk him getting injured.  However, Blanton has a classic pitcher’s build (‘built for comfort, not for speed’) and really wasn’t an option to start chasing down flyballs, even if he does have a World Series home run to boost his hitting credentials.

So it was Oswalt who had to pick up a glove and man left field, smiling broadly with the Citizens Bank Park crowd cheering his name.  It was a surreal scene, made all the more so by the strange coincidence of it happening against Oswalt’s former team.

It’s the way in most sports that many players relish the chance of taking on the role of one of their colleagues.  Maybe it’s a way to relieve stress from the daily grind?  Maybe it’s because they believe the opposite role to their own is easier than their teammates make it look?  Maybe it’s a case of the same feeling of wonder that us fans all go through: ‘what does it feel like to hit a game-winning home run, or a last minute winner?’

Whatever the cause, go to a football training ground and more often than not you’ll find goalkeepers playing as strikers in the five-a-side games, while Wayne Rooney is far from the only attacker known for being a demon goalkeeper (in his own mind at least).  And it’s the same in baseball.  Position players will try out their knuckleballs in the outfield, pitchers convince themselves that they could easily hit long balls if only given a proper chance.

Every now and then, the player gets a chance to live up to their own billing and those moments are always treasured by fans.  We burst into cheers as a goalkeeper heads for the opposition’s penalty box for a late corner, or offer a standing ovation for every routine save made by a position player suddenly left wearing the goalkeeper’s gloves after the normal Number One gets sent off with no substitutes remaining.  We laugh along as batters hit harmless flyballs off a position player’s tame offerings near the end of a blow-out loss (Bill Hall and Nick Swisher being two of the most recent to take the mound temporarily).

What is it that makes these moments so special?

It’s because we’re no longer watching a professional who has dedicated years to honing his skills, we’re watching a talented athlete trying his best in an unfamiliar position.  This typically comes in a state of emergency, and a gung-ho spirit consumes everybody as we enjoy the moment and try to encourage the player into a miraculous performance. 

It’s a little different when it comes to a National League pitcher being a substitute position player.  They have to field their position and also take their hacks at the plate in their normal line of duty, so the skills are far from alien to them.  Oswalt himself was quick to point this out after the game. 

Phildelphia Phillies starter Roy Oswalt (C) leaves the dugout after completing his night against the Washington Nationals in the seventh inning of their MLB National League baseball game in Washington, July 30, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The Astros’ first batter in the fifteenth inning, Jason Castro, hit a flyball to left field (you would expect no less from the baseball gods) and while a commentator on the Phillies’ TV broadcast could be heard to gasp “oh no!” as soon as he saw it heading in Oswalt’s direction, the pitcher turned left fielder made the catch with ease.  The crowd went wild and Oswalt was seen smiling at it all, but he played the moment down later on.  “Everybody made a big deal about a fly ball. We catch 50, 60 of them a day during BP [batting practice], maybe every day for 162 games. For 10 years that’s a lot of fly balls”, said Oswalt.

His comments were accurate, but perhaps he was deliberately trying to play down his excitement.  In fact, he let slip his true feelings when explaining to reporters what he said when centre fielder Shane Victorino asked if he wanted him to take any plays involving a throw to the plate.  “I said, ‘No.’ That’s what I’ve been wanting to do forever is throw somebody out at the plate’”.

He might have 146 Major League wins and 1,628 strikeouts to his name, yet gunning down a runner still remains an unfulfilled dream.

As does hitting a game-winning home run.  He had the chance, with the Phillies down 4-2 in the sixteenth inning, two runners on and two out.  ‘Let’s go Oswalt’ chants filled the air, but he could only ground out to the third baseman to end the game.

Still, we all had something to smile about along the way.

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4 Responses to Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Oswalt a left field choice

  1. Joe Cooter August 30, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    The problem is, umpires seem to be having short fuses this season. From what I heard, the situation with Howard had been brewing for atleast two pitches and the Umpire acted disgracefully.

    The other day Ozzie Guillan got tossed while running onto the field saying that a call was ” incert explative here” before heading back to the dug out.

    Earlier this week Chone Figgins got tossed on a ball strike call when he wasn’t even doing anything to show up the Umpire. Even in yesterday’s LA Colorado game, when Manny got himself tossed from the game and the Dodgers, it looked as though the Umpire had a bit of a quick hook.

    What Umps need to realize is that fans don’t pay for their tickets so that they can see them throw people out of the game. The best umpires don’t get their names mentioned.

    • Matt Smith August 31, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

      Yep, Howard put his hands on his hips at the call and the umpire immitated him. Certainly enflamed the situation and there was no need for it. Sometimes umps do need to take a stand, but they need to use common sense as well.

  2. Joe Gray August 31, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    I always enjoy the novelty bowling on offer in an unwinnable Test match as the cricketers eat up time waiting for the clock-stroke that allows them to shake hands and call an early end to the game.

    Was it Ramprakash who used to serve up bowling impressions at this point?

    Staying with cricket, no doubt the nightwatchman who goes in is secretly hoping to stick around and make a century.

    In rugby, there seem to be front-row forwards who almost deliberately contrive situations where they can be an emergency addition to the three-quarters line – clearly eyeing up a score in the corner. It’s not so amusing when they drop the ball and have no chance of chasing down the opposition’s outside centre, who scooped up the spill and headed towards the posts.

    The football outfielders sent in to keep goal in a real game (I liked your 5-a-side observation, by the way, as it’s true at every level of the game) normally find themselves being asked to save a penalty – and become an instant hero – as their first act.

  3. el mussol September 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    Was it Ramprakash who used to serve up bowling impressions at this point?

    Graham Gooch versus India in 1979 is the really famous occasion.

    el Mussol

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