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Drew Anderson crushing it is what spring training is all about

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MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

In Drew Anderson’s 2017 MLB debut, he gave up a pair of one-out singles, watched a run score on a throwing error during a stolen base, then allowed a second run to come in on a sacrifice line drive.

Then he had to face Mike Trout.

Trout was hitting .335 with a 1.133 OPS at the time, and all of the factors were in his favor: He hit better in Anaheim (.312/.437/.673) than anywhere else, August was one of his hotter months of the season (.315/.475/.630), and against the Phillies that year he’d go 5-for-10 with 2 HR. In a game in which the Angels had built a comfortable 7-1 lead in the eighth inning, this at-bat was almost purely for entertainment purposes.

So maybe it was the nerves, the sweat on his palm, or the eyes of Angel Stadium upon him that saw Anderson hurl one up and over the most dangerous hitter on the planet.

“Try to hit that one, preeminent hitter of this generation!” Anderson seemed to say. Or perhaps it was more, “Oh my god, it’s my first day and I almost hit Mike Trout in the skull.” In either case, Anderson straightened up, buckled down, and struck out Trout—a .312 hitter in night games—by the end of his next four pitches.

It was a moment that didn’t matter; mentioned off-handedly in the recap and robotically generated in the box score. The Phillies lost by a lot, Anderson made only one other appearance in the majors that season, and everyone went back to trying to wrap their heads around how long baseball season is when you’re watching a team 30 games under .500 play out the stretch.

But in a vacuum, and hindsight, it was one of the Phillies’ more fun moments of the year. I mean, this rookie reliever just K’d Mike Trout. There were no base runners on, and the game wasn’t on the line, but anytime Trout steps into a batters box, historians lick their pens. This time, the story was a somewhat abrupt affair as the best hitter in the sport was shut down by a kid who had just thrown the baseball three feet over his head.

In a season like 2017 wound up being for the Phillies, if you’re still clinging to the team late in the second half, the only way to keep yourself sane is to push past the unpleasantries of the results, the standings, and most of the narratives, and find these blips of micro-baseball that allow you some measure of celebration, even in a 7-1 loss. It can matter for a moment, and sometimes, a moment is enough. Or more accurately, sometimes a moment is all you get.

Spring training is the peak of baseball’s meaninglessness. To the players, it’s a crucial stretch of physical and mental calibration for the coming season. To the fans, after the first week, it’s a JV squad match-up that is for some reason televised.

And because the baseball is meaningless, we search for meaning in other things.

Some people will tell you that spring training is all about experimenting, adjusting, and getting in a groove. The results don’t matter, they say, because none of this is real. But for some players, for whom roster spots aren’t a guaranteed ending to the pre-season, it’s probably some of the realer moments of their careers.

Drew Anderson, slayer of Trout, is having a pretty real spring.

The back of the Phillies’ rotation is by no means sorted out, but if they’re using spring training stats as a measuring stick, it’d be tough not to put Anderson at the top of the heap.

We can cast an analyst’s eye on these numbers, consider the opponents he’s facing, and wonder what he’s doing differently. In truth, this does not seem like a reinvented Drew Anderson who has been on a spiritual journey to the other side. It seems like a Drew Anderson who has developed a cutter that used to be a slider, has used that adjustment to flummox hitters who haven’t seen it before at a time when they are at their most raw, and put up some extreme-looking numbers while the Phillies’ rotation has a few spots in flux.

Today, when Anderson starts against the Rays in his fourth appearance of the spring, those numbers are going to change. Maybe they’ll get even better! Probably they’ll balance out a little bit. But haven’t we learned, through this narrative specifically, that expectations are made to be shattered? Who would have thought Anderson would still be here after a few rounds of cuts? Spring training is a six-week warm-up, but for those who are looking for a reason to watch, other than the continued chanting and bugle-blowing for Bryce Harper continued, Anderson’s progress has been pretty cool.

Among the Phillies’ spring narratives, Anderson is certainly in the background. But up to now, and possibly including today, he’s pitched himself into the conversation, even if that conversation comes with a bit of shrugging. But he’s forced us to take a closer look, which is exactly what this time of year is for. The Phillies are playing toward a regular season with, once again, some ambiguity to fill out at the back of their rotation. Anderson may not be the answer in the future, but we’re not watching him in the future. We’re watching him squash inexperienced hitters with a new, effective pitch, and generate some sexy numbers doing it, just like we watched Jake Fox lead the Grapefruit League in 2011 in both home runs (10) and extra base hits (17), or just like might have we nodded in approval and then changed the channel when he struck out Mike Trout two years ago. For a guy like Anderson, spring training is about using your opportunity—your moment—to show what you can do. And he’s doing it. For the moment.