Oswalt has a calming effect for the Phillies

PHILADELPHIA – He is not a complicated man, nor a worrier on the mound. Roy Oswalt(notes) has never fretted through his games, growled at umpires, sagged his shoulders when things go amiss. That might be the Weir, Miss., in him. Small-town ballplayers rarely seem to have that hyper-urgency so many of their colleagues exhibit.

Even after giving up a fifth-inning, game-tying home run to Cody Ross, Roy Oswalt kept his cool – just like he always does.
(Barbara Johnston/US Presswire)

“He’s just so relaxed out there,” Phillies catcher Brian Schneider(notes) said. As if this is all just an easy, simple game.

And it’s why the Phillies maneuvered to trade a viable piece of their future in pitcher J.A. Happ(notes) to land Oswalt this summer. In today’s baseball, the way the economics are set, you don’t often deal a 27-year-old starting pitcher with big possibilities to land a 33-year-old. Not unless you are dealing for nights like Sunday, when Philadelphia, already down 1-0 in the National League Championship Series, needed someone calm and coolly efficient to throw at the San Francisco Giants.

Into the first playoff tension the Phillies have faced this October strutted Oswalt. Out came his fastball, the one that hums in the low to mid 90s, but with the heaviness that makes it feel like driving it is impossible.

“That bowling ball fastball,” San Francisco’s Aubrey Huff(notes) said.

It worked. The Giants managed only three hits and one run in Oswalt’s eight innings. They struck out nine times.

He was, as San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said, “on tonight.”

He also might just have saved the Phillies in this series, a fact for which the Philadelphia players seemed grateful. They did not expect to be behind in the series at this point, especially when Roy Halladay(notes) grew flustered at calls the night before and fell apart just enough for the game to get away.

In many ways, Oswalt is a mystery to his new teammates. They faced him for years when he pitched for the Houston Astros, yet never really knew him. Outfielder Shane Victorino(notes) played with him in the World Baseball Classic. Reliever Brad Lidge(notes) was his teammate in Houston for a few seasons. Otherwise, none of the Phillies know much about him other than his bowling ball fastball.

And once he arrived they discovered just how quiet he is, how he rarely offers much in their banter, how he often seems to drift off by himself, locked in his own thoughts.

Yet they also learned just how effective he can be as a pitcher.

Like with the curveball. It is the most incongruous of Oswalt’s pitches, the one that doesn’t seem to fit with the blazing fastball, the biting slider and the changeup he has been throwing more and more in recent months. The curve is slower. In fact it is tantalizingly slow, floating to the plate at speeds below 70 mph.

On Sunday, he threw the pitch in the seventh inning to outfielder Pat Burrell(notes). It registered 65 mph. Burrell leaned forward, putting all his weight toward the front of the batter’s box. He tried to catch his swing but it was too late, his momentum carried him forward. His bat whipped around and met nothing.

“All Burrell could do was smirk a little, almost like saying ‘you got me this time,’ ” Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer(notes) said.

But this is why the Phillies traded for Oswalt, so he could dazzle in a game like this, taunting the Giants with his roaring fastball and mesmerizing curve. All while standing in the middle of a playoff frenzy, his face an implacable calm.

Most baseball teams build for a regular season, hoping they have picked up enough players to win a division or squeeze into the postseason tournament, content to count on luck as much as anything else to get them through. Philadelphia, like the New York Yankees, looks ahead, worrying more about nights like these when it is obvious postseason success isn’t always luck but instead a careful construction of a team that can win in the biggest games with starting pitchers who do not fear the big moment, and who can own a few October nights.

Oswalt did that, even scaring them when he found himself on second base with one out in the seventh, and racing around third as San Francisco’s Andres Torres(notes) picked up a single to center and fired the ball toward the plate. The Phillies third-base coach, Sam Perlozzo, held up his hands. Stop. Oswalt later testified he saw Perlazzo’s hands too late to stop his momentum.

Torres’ throw hurtled toward the plate. Perlozzo saw Oswalt was about to be out. But then, inexplicably, Huff, who was playing first base, cut off the throw. He turned and whipped it to the plate, but Oswalt slid under the tag.

“You know what they say, it’s better to be lucky than good,” Perlozzo said.

And yet in getting Oswalt, the Phillies became more good than lucky. The perfect trade indeed. Calm in the face of fire.

When the Phillies needed him to be both devastating and serene, he was both.

And he might have given them their most important win of this postseason.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 18, 2010