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Henderson Alvarez’s journey back to the big leagues ends in Philadelphia

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The Phillies welcome their newest pitcher; a testament to the resilience of the human shoulder.

San Francisco Giants v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

From the dripping sub-basement of baseball news came the announcement on Monday: The Phillies were adding a veteran all-star to their pitching staff.

On August 10, 2011 in L.A., Vance Worley spotted the Dodgers five runs in the top of the first, but the offense bailed him out by quietly wailing on Chad Billingsley for a couple of innings until Ryan Howard could get his head on straight and hit the two-run blast that gave them the comeback win. But across the continent in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, something even more special was happening: 21-year-old pitching prospect Henderson Alvarez bounced from the Blue Jays’ AA affiliate all the way to his first major league start.

Given the influx of young players being written into the Toronto lineup at the time, enthusiasm was humming. And who could blame them!

Jays fans, who have recently welcomed a handful of new players in Eric Thames, Colby Rasmus, and Canadian Brett Lawrie, who’ll make his home debut Tuesday night, will see arguably the best arm the organization has in its minor league system.

Henderson was carrying, along with his luggage, a sinker that sunk, a heater that topped out at 101, and a change-up for complementary hitter befuddlement. His slider wasn’t there yet, but as a rookie, neither was he. There was plenty of time to work the rest of this out. Right now, Toronto fans just wanted a look at the international free agent they’d signed in 2006 with two MLB Futures Games and a conversion from the third base to the pitchers mound under his belt.

"[We] felt like it was time to get his feet wet up here," Jays manager John Farrell said.

Some felt the addition of the slider was going to result in an uncharacteristic uptick in strikeouts, but even the hurler himself admitted that wasn’t his intention. He pitched to contact and relied on his defense. Not strikeouts. Quick outs.

Alvarez’s dry feet took the mound and the right-hander worked around some trouble in the first, got rattled by the A’s in the fourth, and wound up lasting five and two thirds. He’d break through in his fifth start against the Orioles, going eight efficient innings, throwing only 97 pitches, and tricking the Birds into 18 ground ball outs. It helped that Eric Thames, Yunel Escobar, and Edwin Encarnacion went a combined 12-for-16 at the plate and the Jays won 13-0 by battering Jo-Jo Reyes, a hurler moving in the other direction.

Nevertheless, Alvarez remained true to his word, keeping the ball on the ground, and mostly in the park (Except on August 26 in which Evan Longoria, John Jaso, and Desmond Jennings all homered off him in a 6-1 loss that saw all of its runs scored on home runs, but not for the last one, which was on a wild pitch). His performance was enough to get him back on the team in 2012, when he had the lowest strikeout rate in the country at 3.80 K/9 and a season ERA of 4.85 with a 1.441 WHIP and, in a moment of ominous foreshadowing, suffered right elbow soreness during a furious lightning storm in Boston.

It was enough to get the attention of Jeffrey Loria’s shadow agents.

When news of the trade broke, the details were still floating within phone calls between Canada and South Florida and reporters rushed to put it all together. At 35 years old, the Blue Jays’ young GM Alex Anthopoulos was looking to flip over the table in Toronto and start fresh with, I don’t know, 60 new players? Even today, it’s impossible to count just how many players went from birds to fish and how many went back the other way. The Blue Jays-Marlins mega-deal of November 2012 was the biggest news in Toronto baseball trades since Pat Gillick pulled Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar out of San Diego.

It’s tough to know who was actually traded and who was simply caught up in the rush and swept away inadvertently. But here’s where everyone stood after it had gone down.

To the Blue Jays:

  • Jose Reyes
  • Josh Johnson
  • Mark Buehrle
  • John Buck
  • Emilio Bonifacio

To the Marlins:

  • Yunel Escobar
  • Adeiny Hechavarria
  • Jeff Mathis
  • Jake Marisnick
  • Justin Nicolino
  • Anthony DeSclafani
  • Henderson Alvarez

Giancarlo Stanton didn’t like it (Bryce Harper offered him sanctuary in Washington). Marlins fans didn’t like it. Larry Beinfest appealed to the masses by confirming that the "instability" of the team’s roster was "...not a lot of fun." But that’s where Alvarez now found himself, on the bummed-out side of a trade with his previous team so jacked up on the dawn of their new era that it was suggested that they could seduce Bobby Cox out of retirement.

Alvarez was at the beginning of a new era himself, now, but unfortunately instead of starting it on the mound at Marlins Park in front of dozens of screaming fans, he was slapped onto the 60-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. It wasn’t until July that he would surface again, undergoing a rough August with a 5.72 ERA in 26.2 IP. But by the end of September, you could say that Alvarez had figured things out.

On the season’s final day, in a game in which his team didn’t score the winning run until a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth, in temperature-controlled dome meant to keep out the swampy Miami atmosphere, it’s probably fair to say that three seasons, one trade, and 1,500 miles later, Alvarez’s feet were sufficiently wet. Sports Illustrated doesn’t just hand out the 85th ranking of the Top Sports Moments of 2013, after all.

What came next? The "rise" part of a "rise and fall" story: Two complete game shutouts in his first seven 2014 starts. An appearance at the All-Star Game in New York because Jordan Zimmermann couldn’t make it. The league lead in shut-outs at the end of July with three. And then what always befalls heroes at the apex of their glory? That’s right, shoulder inflammation.

That pesky condition that had prodded him in 2012 returned, and he missed two weeks in August before returning to finish the 2014 campaign. But in spring training the following year, his being named the opening day starter for the Marlins did nothing to protect him from inflammation again, this time in his shoulder and elbow. He was shut down, came back, went 0-4 with a 6.45 ERA, and had surgery in late July that pulled the plug on his year.

He awoke in the tepid waters of free agency.

And so began the jarring, fragmented phase of his career; one on which we’ve seen promising players stricken by injury or drop-offs embark many times before. He went to Oakland, threw a little bit, then had a second shoulder surgery. He fell to the unaffiliated Long Island Ducks and made seven starts, accumulating a 3.09 ERA with 13 SO and 14 BB; classic Alvarez.

Both the Phillies' need for pitching as their young rotation was chewed up by a long season and Alvarez’s status as an experienced pitcher looking for a shot just about anywhere contributed to a shades-wearing Matt Klentak waiting by Alvarez's car in the parking lot at Bethpage Ballpark on Long Island, exactly like in the second or third scene of a baseball movie (We have no confirmation of this).

Now, Alvarez is in Philadelphia in September 2017.

Sorry we’re not better.

This past July, when Alvarez landed in Long Island for the Ducks’ post season run (they’re in first place as of today), he did so at the same time as ex-Giant Jake Dunning, a former baseball and basketball star at Indiana whose career in MLB thus far has been so brief, he may be best remembered for giving up two straight run-scoring wild pitches during a game against the Pirates. He is but one of many arms throwing the hell out of the ball in hopes that they make the bigs, and when they do, that they can hang on. When they can’t, they accept shorter deals, less money, and roles on teams further and further down the minor league rabbit hole. In some stories, they climb back. In others, it doesn’t happen. For Dunning, it hasn’t happened yet, and he is yet another example of how the major league dream can be ever so fleeting.

But in Alvarez’s case, he’s made it back, after multiple surgeries and displacements. He’s only 27 years old, somehow, and regardless of how this stint with the Phillies goes, it’s an impressive feat to be here again for the first time since 2015. "Here," of course being the Philadelphia baseball scene in September 2017, which many experts which describe as "unideal," but despite the poor record and potential for a basement finish, Alvarez is excited to be here; but probably not because it’s here. Because it’s anywhere.