"Wait, he throws how fast?" (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
I have to be honest with you all: I didn’t actually catch last night’s heartbreaker myself. I had the particular luck of being away at a Labor Day barbeque when the offending game occurred, and, like some of you, had the unusual experience of seeing a 7-0 lead turn into an 8-7 loss between a couple of hours’ inattention to my phone. Of course, learning how the game actually unfolded, and hearing about Larry’s particular contribution to Our National Nightmare, I went through the appropriate emotions (blinding rage; Negadelphian resignation; xenophobic rants against Southerners) after the fact. But that all said, I’m not taking today’s victory with the same deep breath of fresh air that I’m sure the rest of you are – I can’t say as I needed it as badly, nor can I say that it’s as wonderful in the contrast (see: the best of all possible worlds). Indeed, in comparison, this game feels almost routine or dull – a quick pitching-heavy game, lasting about 2 and a half hours. No truly dramatic heroics or deeply nail-biting moments (well, maybe one). Mostly what you’d hope for on Labor Day: a break from the more draining or deflating efforts of this 2012 iteration of the 2012 Phillies. A fine, if lackadaisical vacation.
Ah, but there’s something that’s jarring about moving from a loss like last night’s to a win like today’s. There’s something even jarring about watching the replays as we were forced to do in the beginning of today’s contest, Frandsen’s misplayed ball and Chipper Jones’ game ending home run, with even minutely detailed analysis of Larry’s home run skip, stirring those embers of loathing in our collective hearts. But maybe you had a similar experience to me – maybe those clips seemed less than real, almost simulacra, already determined conclusions that were lacking the full flush of reality. This, of course, can be chalked up to the fact that, indeed, we did know what was going to happen, much like we know, each and every time, that Kirk Gibson’s going to hit that improbable home run, or that Eric Hinske will strike out. But beyond that, there’s something about that kind of painful cruelty that dulls overnight, something of the shock of the moment that becomes dulled, even commonplace over the hours during which your mind has time to rationalize the event. The event – in all its cruelty, and, with recognition to WholeCamels’ tremendous effort last night, its evil – is rendered dull, everyday, and banal. Of course, as we must already suspect, a victory like this shocks the senses in a different way, even in its utterly routine way, and if you’ll follow me after the jump, I’ll explain the logic behind the old baseball koan: nothing makes a heartbreaker feel better than a straightforward win.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" in her seminal Eichmann in Jerusalem, a text that asserts, essentially, that evil need not be exceptional, but in fact is most socially permeable when it is naturalized within a culture as normal and unremarkable. You’ll see in the linked article that this is often called "normalization," but we can just as easily call it ideology or, pace taco pal, a metanarrative – simply put, a kind of story that we believe in without terribly much forethought and that explains otherwise horrible, evil, or otherwise objectionable circumstances. Arendt’s example is perhaps the most useful – in her mind, the German people naturalized the murder of Jewish and otherwise devalued citizens by the Nazis by way of understanding those tragedies as simply normal or necessary or unremarkable. As a less emotionally charged example, we can think about the tragedy of the homeless: regardless of one’s feeling towards these displaced, few give during every encounter, and, given enough exposure to this tragedy, most will simply stop even recognizing these individuals. This is a standard kind of normalization – we have our narratives about the homeless, and we recognize them in a way that makes them unremarkable. It’s a coping mechanism of sorts. Why, even though we’d be better off comparing apples and oranges, it’s even what we do to handle terrible losses and even worse baseball seasons.
How many of you, after last night’s game, said "Well, that’s the 2012 Phillies for you." I, personally, will fess up – I saw the score, was appalled, and then quickly came to the conclusion of "Oh, 2012." But there’s something remarkably awful about a loss like that, something deeply hateable about those accursed Braves, and something evil about Chipper "The Goat With One Thousand Young" Jones. But even looking at the matchup for today, I felt those deep, exceptional feelings dulling into a recognizable and normalized pattern of being. Tyler Cloyd was pitching in a bandbox. Check. We were hoping he’d be able to outduel a guy with an inside track on his first Cy Young in Johnny Cueto. Check. And it was a day game after the deepest possible kind of gut punch. Double check. While the first inning was reasonably unexceptional, it almost felt natural that Jay Bruce would pound a Tyler Cloyd offering deep into the seats for a 1-0 Reds lead in the 2nd. Even with Cloyd seemingly hitting his spots and pitching around his lack of pure stuff quite well, it felt as if inevitable that we’d be seeing a well-pitched 1-0 or 3-2 or 5-3 loss – one of the terribly familiar close-but-not-quite losses that (anecdotally) seem to be marking this season.
But that wasn’t really the script that Cloyd had. Cloyd took our natural exception to exceptionality and pitched like the outlier we so hope he will be. He kept Reds hitters reasonably off-balance all day, and while we might mock Dusty "clogging the bases" Baker, the Reds walk at the 17th best rate (7.8 %) in the majors (better than the Phillies’ 28th best 7%, h/t Fangraphs), so it’s not like they were hacking all night. With some excellent placement and intelligent pitching, Cloyd kept the Reds stymied at that 1 run through his seven innings, peppering 9 (!!) strikeouts throughout, along with 0 walks. I realize that we want to be careful getting too excited, but 9 strikeouts and 0 walks is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of prospect pedigree. And even with that said, I think we can be cautiously pessimistic with Cloyd without throwing the baby out with the bathwater: not every non-stuff finesse guy has to be either Greg Maddux or quad-A. I’d be jazzed with splitting the difference at Tommy Milone.
On the offensive side, Cloyd helped his own cause, as he had a base-hit right after Steve Lerud singled with two outs in the fifth. I actually remember thinking during that fifth inning – while still in the normalizing thrall of the banality of 2012 – that "Lerud won’t exactly save the game." Turns out he was a part of it, but that erstwhile homo sacer Jimmy Rollins was the larger part. His 3-run home run would turn out to be all the offense the Phillies needed, as well as his 1,999th career hit. Not too shabby, James. John Mayberry, Jr would add on in the next inning, working to prove that he’s not a one-year fluke by hitting another home run in the sixth, this time a solo shot, bringing the Phillies to a 4-1 lead. Cloyd would continue to handle the Reds, getting two K’s in his final inning on Jay Bruce and Scott Frazier, before being lifted in the eighth for Justin DeFratus. So many pitching prospects, you guys! DeFratus pitched a decent eighth, though his control was somewhat suspect, and he was the beneficiary of a lucky ground ball that turned into a double play. In the ninth, with a three-run lead, it was determined that Jonathan Papelbon could not pitch, and instead in a nice surprise, Philippe Aumont was sent in for the save. I was tremendously happy not to have to answer my Reds-fan friend’s texted question: "How’s Papelbon’s short-term memory?"
Aumont was actually quite good by my eyes, despite this being the one moment in the game when I started to worry that I’d have to change the first paragraph or two of this recap. While he allowed a run and didn’t strike anyone out, he was the victim of some groundball BABIP, and he didn’t walk anyone, which is half the battle with him anyway. He got the save in style, with a nice defensive play by Jimmy Rollins helping him along and erasing Brandon Phillips at second base. Actually, Jimmy had another defensive gem wiped out by some poor catching by Ryan Howard at first, but Ryan also had a 13 pitch at-bat that can’t have helped Johnny Cueto’s day any, too, so let’s just call it even. All-in-all, a pretty fun game, with some nice milestones: first win for Cloyd (with his family there, aww); first save by Aumont (his family was likely not there); first day game loss by Johnny Cueto (sorry Mama Cueto).
And then, all of a sudden, last night’s game feels less normal and far more exceptional. Because, when you think about it, teams don’t really score five runs in the bottom of the ninth on the reg, nor does a baseball team’s prior record necessarily determine their future success, especially when they’ve actually been quite decent since the all-star break (28-20, according to resident nice guy RTP). Indeed, all of a sudden, things seem less banal in the evil direction, and moreso in the good direction. But we should, once again, be cautious – it is not as if Tyler Cloyd is the new ace, and it’s not as if we’ll always see the kind of useful hitting we saw in the fifth inning, especially against very good pitchers like Cueto – this is not the "new normal." But a win like this reminds us that there’s something deeply dangerous about the banality of evil, such that we can watch a game like last night’s flash by and not be to able to maintain our surprise and horror. And horror might be strong, but just imagine how worked up we’d all be over that loss given an even half-way reasonable season. Instead of a loose shrug, we’d be wondering at the terribly exceptional luck that it would take to give up five runs to our most hated rival. If there’s one thing that we can take from this afternoon’s delightful diversion, it’s that we shouldn’t take that wonder and horror for granted, just as we should not take the joy and surprise of a rookie-pitched gem on a beautiful Labor Day for granted. Even in 2012.