August 10, 2010

The raul world.

About 13 months ago, I had a lengthy verbal spat with a pompous young asshole, an argument centered around his proclamation that the Phillies' new left fielder was abusing performance-enhancing drugs. I disagreed. He, of course, followed our exchange with an excessive amount of alcohol consumption, and during one of his subsequent, violent sessions of vomiting, I strode over to the toilet and confidently remarked, "You know, Raul Ibanez is not on steroids."

I was defending an athlete that had won his way into Philadelphia's heart with a power outburst, an unexpected homer binge that was being wildly speculated about outside of the city. I found it foolish; he had a hyperbaric chamber, for God's sake! Little did I know that, steroids or not, a year would go by before I'd defend Raul again.

I know that Ibanez suffered two serious abdominal tears that bothered him for quite a while, and I know that his outrageous 2009 first half (340/.399/.716 in his first 50 games) was simply unrepeatable. But as the painful early months of 2010 dragged on, fans couldn't help reminding themselves that Raul was approaching 39 years old. Despite an excellent, steady track record, it seemed like his career might be coming to a close.

He was hovering around .240 when the summer began, and his bat speed looked dangerously nonexistent. The calls began for Domonic Brown to be called up from the minors; for Raul to be platooned, benched or outright released; for some kind of move to be made to shake up an inconsistent and sometimes stagnant Phillies team. Releasing him was a ludicrous idea, of course, but even Charlie Manuel eventually, reluctantly, started playing Ben Francisco versus most lefties. It seemed that the end was in sight.

So when Raul started hitting in July (.337 with four home runs), most Phillies fans took it as an unexpected blessing. Anything we got out of this beloved corpse, this man we fell in love with during the wild ride known as Spring '09, was gravy. And we owed the guy $11.5 million in 2011 anyway, so maybe a few hot months would help the Phillies move his contract to a DH-needing AL team.

But now it's August, and Raul's up to .274 with a .798 OPS, not far off his career .824 mark and practically unbelievable when you realize that it was 77 points lower at the end of June. He may never hit 20 homers again, but his reemergence as a legitimate hitting threat has come at the best time: while Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are all on the disabled list.

This could have been when the the 2010 season faltered, when the Braves left the Phillies in the dust once and for all. But instead, Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton have righted the back-end of the rotation, Brad Lidge has been decent rather than dreadful, the name Roy Oswalt has made everyone believe again, and yes, Raul Ibanez has rediscovered his stroke.

With all three injured All-Stars on their way back in the next few weeks, it would seem that the necessary reinforcements are on the way. If the Phillies can continue their skillful late summer play, if Jimmy Rollins can get his mojo back and Jayson Werth can hit a bit with runners in scoring position, then September should be a good month for us all. And maybe Raul Ibanez can bring his big bat into October this time and remind the city why we adored him in the first place.

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