I did not see Cole Hamels throw a no-hitter yesterday. I was in my fortress of solitude in western Pennsylvania, devoid of cable. After an afternoon of fishing, backhoeing, shooting at neighbors' drones, and other family fun, I checked on the score of the game. It was the top of the ninth and...whoa. My son and I followed along on gameday and twitter, hanging on each refreshed bit of data until we saw the final, "in play, out(s)" whereupon we jumped around, high-fived, and searched for highlights. We did not shoot guns into the air. That's just dumb.
We did find highlights and the condensed game thingy on MLB.com. I ultimately saw the two catches by Odubel Herrera. Herrera is a really, really green outfielder, and that showed today. The dude is not Garry Maddox. I think it is safe to say that he will never be Garry Maddox. But he was good enough today, and none of us will ever forget him now, no matter what his career turns out to be.
Turn back the clock now to the last Phillies game that I watched start to finish: the Tuesday, July 21 game against the Rays. I went to see it with my son, and we saw a fabulous game pitched by Aaron Nola. How good was it? It was really, really good. It was like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Nola's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments. That's pretty good.
One part of that game was not so good, though. A 3-6-3 Odubel play by the Rays that was turned largely because Herrera did not bust his ass down the line. Figuring that the soft tapper he hit a step or so from first would result in the first baseman stepping on the bag for an out, he Cliff Lee'd it while James Loney instead threw to first to get Nola, then the return throw nailed Herrera (who had since started running) by a mile. Fans (rightly) booed.
In the postgame interview during that game, as I drove on I-76 to get back home, Pete Mackanin fielded questions about the lack of hustle from his 23 year old Rule 5 player who was playing in AA at this time last year. Mackanin was asked if he thought about benching Herrera for the play. He calmly said that the matter had been addressed and he went out of his way to praise how hard Herrera works. Here is a summary of the kerfluffle and Mackanin's response:
"We talked to him afterwards," Mackanin said. "I'm not gonna [bench Herrera] unless it's flagrant. This kid works harder than anybody, he puts in his time and he's a good kid. I like the way he prepares for the game, but he's had a few instances where he's been doing things he shouldn't have done and tonight was one of them.
"I'm not gonna bury him because of that. If it becomes flagrant, that's a consideration."
Mackanin stood up for his player. He went out of his way to praise him, while at the same time noting that he was not pleased with the play and that there had been discussions. I thought at the time that it was an excellent approach to dealing with a young player.
It turned out that Herrera had a walkoff hit a to win a game a couple of days later. Yesterday, he had two...interesting...catches that helped preserve Cole Hamels' 1.5th no-hitter with the Phillies. Coincidence? I don't honestly know.
I'm not an expert on how to manage 24 year old athletes that do not speak English as a primary language. I'm not sure what forms of discipline that may be used by Mackanin with a young roster. What I did not see was Mackanin going over to Herrera and screaming at him in the dugout, followed by a couple of other coaches doing the same thing. See: Giles, Ken and Sandberg, Ryne.
Maybe "tough love" is called for sometimes. I don't know. Maybe it's just luck. Maybe not. What Mackanin did Tuesday during and after the Rays game with Herrera certainly did not seem to hurt, though. Maybe Mackanin had no effect on Herrera. After all, Herrera has been arguably the most successful Phillies hitter over the last 30 days, though his performance is at least partly fueled by an unsustainable BABIP (though his BABIP should be high, given his speed). Maybe Herrera is just on a hot streak and the walkoff had nothing to do with anything Mackanin did. At least Mackanin didn't do any apparent harm, though.
The bottom line is that Mackanin stayed calm, addressed the issue, did not throw a "dogging it" hissy fit, defended his player in public, and watched as that same player provided some great moments for the team just a few days later.
I don't see Ryne Sandberg handling it the same way, but that's just speculation on my part. Because Sandberg quit and walked away when he "couldn't take the losing" or whatever, we'll never know what he would have done with Herrera here. I don't know if Mackanin's handling of it makes him an objectively good manager or not, but my sense is that he is an improvement over what went before. Perhaps it is just that a change was needed to get a fresh start. Again, from the outside, we will probably never know.
Maybe Mackanin and Herrera just benefited from some badly needed serendipity this week. Whatever happened, I am glad it did, and I couldn't be happier for Mackanin, Herrera, and Cole Hamels. If Mackanin simply did better by not being as inept as Sandberg was at the end, that represents an improvement over what went before -- an admittedly very low baseline. Still, I believe that what he did on Tuesday did play some role in two great moments for Herrera and the team over the last week.