During a handful of stints in which Happ shuttled back and forth on the Northeast Extension between Citizens Bank Park and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Manuel lamented the chances he was not able to give the 25-year-old rookie. Sure, Happ received two starts for the Phillies when Brett Myers went back to the minors in July, but as soon as Manuel had his veterans back in the rotation Happ was back on Route 476 and heading north.
Manuel was even reluctant to use Happ out of the bullpen saying, “I’m not afraid to pitch Happ out of the bullpen, but I look at Happ as a starter.”
Talk about being in limbo – Happ was a pitcher that was ill-suited for the ‘pen and not seasoned enough for the manager to confidentially throw him into a regular starting role even when two-year veteran Kyle Kendrick struggled. In fact, twice in one week Manuel used Myers and Jamie Moyer on short rest and has reconfigured the rotation so that the No. 5 spot will come up just one more time for the rest of the season.
Needless to say, Manuel’s confidence in the end of his rotation has increased considerably after Wednesday night’s 6-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
That’s because Happ took over Kendrick’s spot and kept the Phillies in first place in the NL East by spinning six innings of shutout ball in Atlanta for his first big-league win. In his first start since pitching for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs on Aug. 26, Happ held the Braves to just three hits and a walk on 86 pitches.
“It was awesome,” Happ said. “I understood the position we’re in. I just wanted to get us back in the dugout, keep the momentum on our side and keep us on the roll we’ve been on.”
Happ’s outing drew rave reviews from a fellow starter who is 20 years his senior.
“He pitched the way you’re supposed to pitch, not like the clown who pitched [Tuesday] night,” said Tuesday night’s pitcher Moyer. “He’s obviously worked hard from last year to this year. He had great poise tonight. He threw the ball down in the zone. He pitched well up. He held his own. The more opportunities he gets, the better off he’ll be.”
If anything, baseball is all about the here and now. Sometimes a player is only as good as his last swing or pitch. Everybody is trying to get their foot in the door and keep it there.
“If you give a guy a chance, you don’t know how he’s going to react,” Manuel said. “Heck, Columbus took the chance.”
Indeed he did. It also appears the Phillies will give Happ another chance on Monday, which brings us to another issue that doesn’t really stick to the here-and-now. Instead, Manuel’s decision and Happ’s strong performance conjure up memories of past Phillies glories when another manager took a chance on an unproven rookie during the heat of a September pennant race.
“At that age you didn’t know what it means,” said former Phillies pitcher Marty Bystrom. “I didn’t know the history of Philadelphia and how much they wanted a championship. I had only been in the city for a month, so it was kind of a good thing. I was able to free up and focus.”
Bystrom, as devotees to Phillies’ lore know, joined the team as a September call up in 1980 World Championship season and was thrust into the starting rotation by manager Dallas Green when Larry Christenson went down with an injury. But instead of pitching like a 21-year-old kid, Bystrom proved to be an important cog on the staff alongside Steve Carlton, Dick Ruthven and Tug McGraw by going 5-0 in five starts with a 1.54 ERA. Factor in one relief appearance and Bystrom’s ERA dipped to 1.50 while holding opponents to a .195 batting average.
Interestingly, Bystrom’s first start was on Sept. 10, 1980 when he helped the Phillies remain a half game behind the Montreal Expos by tossing a complete-game, five-hit shutout at Shea Stadium. Yet the most lasting memory Bystrom has from that first start wasn’t the pressure of the pennant race – though that was evident. Instead, he was a bit jittery about making his first big-league start with Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Larry Bowa and Bob Boone in the field and the taskmaster Green in the dugout.
“[My head] was spinning, that’s for sure. It was really hard to grasp the situation. It was amazing,” Bystrom said.
Bystrom followed up his debut with a seven-innings of shutout ball in an 8-4 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals at the Vet before going 5 1/3 innings for a 7-3 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
In that one, Bystrom gave up his first runs as a big leaguer when Dave Kingman clubbed a two-run homer in the fourth inning. To that point the rookie right-hander had gone 20 straight innings without allowing a run.
“I tried to get a slider over and he hit it over the center field fence,” Bystrom remembered.
Perhaps Bystrom’s biggest start that September came on Sept. 25 at the Vet when he went 6 2/3 innings in a 2-1 victory over the Mets. Thanks to that victory the Phillies moved into first place by a half game over the Expos and remained either in first place, tied or mere percentage points behind the rest of the way.
His last start of the regular season was on Sept. 30 when Bystrom went seven innings in a 14-2 win over the Cubs at the Vet.
By that point, the folks in Philadelphia were wondering, “Where did this guy come from?”
“I went to spring training with the Major League club and pulled a hamstring. The talk back then was I would break camp with the Phillies, but it wasn’t until July when I finally pitched for the Triple-A club,” Bystrom said. “When Dallas called me up, he knew me. He was the minor league director before he became manager so he knew my arm was there. It was just a matter of maturity.”
Meanwhile, Happ finds himself in a similar situation as Bystrom did nearly 30 years ago. Though he stands to make just one more start, Happ is not eligible for the post-season roster because he was not on the 25-man squad before Sept. 1. Bystrom was in a similar situation during the ’80 run, too, however, an injury to Nino Espinosa opened up a post-season roster spot.
On the strength of just five Major League starts, Bystrom not only was with the club during one of the most memorable league championship series ever, but also started the fifth and deciding game against Nolan Ryan and Houston in the Astrodome. Strangely enough, Bystrom said he didn’t know he was going to start the deciding game until the Phillies won in Game 4.
“I hadn’t pitched in nine or 10 days and Dallas came up to after Game 4 and said, ‘You got the ball tomorrow, kid,’” Bystrom said. “I said, ‘I’m ready.’”
Bystrom called that NLCS finale “the toughest game I ever pitched.” More than just the pressure of a game with the World Series on the line, Bystrom recalled that the noise from the fans in the Astrodome was deafening.
“I took a suggestion from Steve Carlton and put cotton in my ears,” Bystrom said, adding that pitching with Rose, Schmidt, Bowa and Boone on his side in the field made things a lot easier.
Green later tabbed Bystrom to start the pivotal fifth game of the World Series in Kansas City – a game best remembered for the Phillies’ ninth-inning rally and McGraw’s heart-stopping pitching to win it.
“It was a moment I dreamed about since I was five or six years old,” Bystrom said of pitching in the World Series. “Then, all of sudden, it was today is the day – this is the day I was dreaming about all of those years.”
The 1980 season was kind of the beginning of the end for Bystrom, which is more proof that baseball is all about the here-and now. An arm injury suffered just after the 1981 players’ strike curtailed the tall righty’s career in which he reached a career-high of six wins in two seasons. Following the 1989 season where he pitched in the Indians’ organization (after stints with the Yankees and Giants chains), Bystrom called it quits at age 30.
These days Bystrom lives in Geigertown, Pa. and works as the vice president of broker relations for the Benecon Group in Brownstown, Lancaster County, where he has worked since 1995. He moved back to the area at the end of his playing days when he was still pitching with the Yankees, and noted that every time a young kid comes up during the last month of the season, people always seem to remember him.
“It comes up,” Bystrom laughed. “There was a story in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago about September call ups and my picture was in it. I guess it has to go down as one of the best Septembers for a call up ever.”
It’s hard to argue with the 5-0 record and 1.50 ERA in the middle of a pennant race.
Happ could leave us conjuring up Bystrom’s magical month again if he pitches well on Monday. After that, who knows… maybe a few post-season starts will help history repeat itself.
Bystrom’s advice for Happ: Just stick with what got you there.
“[He just has to] relax as much as possible and stick to the normal routines.”
It’s as simple as that.