Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cole Hamels and Domonic Brown Provide Reasons to Watch the Phillies

Personally, the past year has been one of the most trying in my entire life, both as a sports fan and a person.

I changed jobs and then changed jobs again, dealt with the deaths of family members and friends, had an odd health scare that threatened my hearing, and went through the emotional roller-coasters that come with relationships with other individuals, all of which cut into my sports enjoyment more than I ever imagined anything could.

At the same time, I watched the Flyers flame out to Devils, miss their big fish in free agency and have injuries threaten to derail a season that hasn't even started yet. The Sixers had a fun run but were ultimately the same team as always before last week's promising shakeup. The Eagles had a disappointing season, lost their best offensive lineman for the upcoming year and had tragedy befall their head coach. A scandal of unfathomable horror encompassed my alma mater, eating me up inside as a human being much more so than a college football fan. And the Phillies, after a franchise record for victories in a season, were bounced in the first round, made worse by Ryan Howard's achilles exploding on the final at-bat, only to follow that up with a 2012 season to forget.

Don't get me wrong, things haven't been all bad — quite the contrary in some regards — but sports just haven't been the same for me the past 12 months or so. That's why I've found it so strange that I've been getting a lot of enjoyment watching the dreadful Phillies lately.

Maybe it's the nostalgia of sticking by your team even when they were perennial losers, but for whatever reason, I'm more invested in the Phillies now than I was just a few months ago for two main reasons: Domonic Brown and Cole Hamels.

Cole, as we all know, has been fantastic virtually all season long, the one Phillies starter who has lived up to his reputation minus a few shaky starts here and there, which happens to literally every pitcher alive.

Last night, he was as dominant as ever, effortlessly blanking the Marlins for his second straight complete-game shutout to improve to 13-6 on the season and continue his ascent up the ranks of the game's best. He's among the league leaders in virtually every pitching category, including leading the NL in innings pitched to complement his 2.91 ERA and 158 strikeouts. At 28 years old and squarely in the prime of his career, Hamels is the type of building block every team would love to have. That's why he was such a hot topic of discussion at the trade deadline, and that's ultimately why he was given a huge contract to remain in Philadelphia for the next six years at least.

Every time he takes the mound, you actually think even this Phillies team has a chance to win. He's vaulted past his former Cy Young winning teammates as the guy you want to see pitch more than anyone else here in 2012. It's incredibly gratifying to see him develop since day one, first struggling with emotion in his early days, then turning into an NLCS and World Series MVP, following that up with a miserable season only to bounce back, learn from it all and become one of the best in the business.

Over the years, Hamels has been given a hard time for his California attitude and perceived lack of mental toughness, but not anymore. He's not only a fan favorite, but a true star across baseball. In a season of underachievement by the pitching staff, Hamels has not disappointed, which is more than the majority of Phillies can say, Carlos Ruiz and a few others excluded.

On the other hand, one Phillie that has been synonymous with disappointment the past few years is Domonic Brown.

Personally, I never thought it was quite fair the amount of criticism Brown has gotten since his star faded through little fault of his own. With a team that was in the midst of contention for the past five seasons, the Phillies didn't have the patience or roster space to dedicate to developing Brown at the Major League level. Thus, he wasn't really utilized during his stints on the big club with the exception of last year, when he got a chance to play fairly often after Ben Francisco failed to fill the void left by the departed Jayson Werth.

It's true that Brown didn't set the world on fire during his time manning right, highlighted by his defensive struggles, but his struggles were vastly overblown. In fact, Brown wasn't altogether terrible at the dish, batting .245 with five home runs and 19 RBI in just 184 at-bats. While that's nothing to write home about, it was on par with the way Chase Utley started his career, fielding questions and all.

The difference is the Phillies weren't this recent version of the Phillies yet, meaning they could ride with Utley and Ryan Howard since the ball club had no expectations, let them develop and become the players they turned into. Last year, with a World Series or bust mentality, the team couldn't afford to ride out the ups and downs of developing a young outfielder like Brown, so they traded for Hunter Pence and sent him back down. That's when injuries took hold and stunted his development even further, prompting people to label him a bust.

The fact of the matter is, for the first time in his career, Brown is truly getting the chance to play every day at the big league level and learn on the fly. And right now, he's beginning to show that promise that once made him one of the hottest prospects in all of baseball, putting together quality at-bats and gaining confidence every day.

Before Sunday's exciting 8-7 victory against St. Louis, in which Dom went 0-for-4, he had an eight-game hitting streak going. And last night, he rebounded from that 0-fer by going 2-for-4 with a walk and run scored, elevating his average to .279 and upping his on-base percentage to .380. While it's still a very small sample size with just 43 plate appearances, that .279 average puts him among the team leaders, and his .380 OBP is third behind catchers Ruiz and pleasant surprise Erik Kratz.

Further, he seems to be putting together as many quality at-bats as any other Phillie right now, seeing a good number of pitches, working counts and looking like a guy who's starting to figure it out. Yes, we all want to see his power emerge, as he's had very few extra-base hits, but he no longer looks confused and overmatched. In fact, he's struck out just four times in those 43 ABs this season, a far cry from last year's alarming strikeout rate.

Then you factor in his improved play in the outfield and there's plenty to still like about Domonic Brown. His cannon of an arm has been on full display, gunning down a few runners and holding many more. Even more importantly, he hasn't looked completely lost like he did last season, taking terrible routes to the ball and playing a lot like Hunter Pence and Raul Ibanez in the outfield, which is to say not good. Sure, he has work to do still, but he's looked better thus far, whether in left or right, signs that we shouldn't give up on this guy just yet.

Frankly, tuning in to see the development of Brown has brought back a little bit of the joy in watching sports that has been sapped out of me the past year.

So if you've given up on watching the Phillies, maybe you should give them another chance. No, they won't make the playoffs and yes, this season cannot be considered anything but a complete and utter failure, but Cole Hamels and Domonic Brown — not mention great stories like Erik Kratz and Juan Pierre — provide good reasons to still watch the Phillies until October rolls around.

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