What a crazy year it's been for new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain

What a crazy year it's been for new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain

A year ago at this time, new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain was driving for Uber in Arizona as he awaited Mariners spring training.

So much has changed since then for him, and in Clearwater with the Phils, he will have an opportunity to make a big-league team out of camp for the first time. 

McClain knew going into 2019 that it would be a make-or-break year. If he didn't progress through the Seattle Mariners' system and prove his value, the likelihood was that he'd be out of baseball.

"My back was against the wall," he recalled this weekend as he made the two-day drive from Phoenix to Atlanta.

You don't find many 26-year-olds at High A, but that's where McClain's 2019 season began. He had spent the previous three years almost exclusively as a starting pitcher for the Modesto Nuts and the results were what they were — a 4.81 ERA in 64 appearances, 57 of which were starts.

Feeling that pressure, McClain had what he described as a strong offseason, and a switch to the bullpen in 2019 unlocked some abilities that resulted in his rise all the way from Single A to the majors in the span of just four months.

McClain dominated the same California League that had previously been a challenge, allowing one run in 16 innings with 18 strikeouts and just one walk. He was promoted to Double A and his success continued. At those two levels, he had a combined 0.85 ERA in 31⅔ innings when he was called up to Triple A to pitch in the Pacific Coast League.

The PCL is a notoriously difficult league for pitchers because of the high altitudes of stadiums and the hot conditions during the summer. Last season, the PCL was even more of a joke because it used the same juiced baseball as MLB. There were 3,312 home runs in the PCL in 2019 compared to 2,097 in 2018.

Yet McClain was still effective, posting a 3.29 ERA in 41 innings and allowing just three home runs. Still, he noticed the difference in the baseballs, particularly from Double A to Triple A. At Double A, he recalled, he could throw a hard fastball down the middle and live to tell about it. That wasn't the case in the PCL.

Last season was a good opportunity in Seattle for McClain, who was claimed off waivers by the Phillies on Friday. The Mariners used 42 different pitchers in 2019 and he was one of them, debuting on Aug. 2 in Houston.

In the days since the Phillies claimed McClain, much has been made on the internet of his performances in Houston compared to elsewhere. The Astros, who used a multi-layered system of espionage to steal signs from opponents and relay them to their players in real-time, do not have the benefit of the doubt, and there is increased focus on pitchers who experienced discrepancies in performance in Houston vs. everywhere else. 

McClain made 14 appearances for the Mariners last season. In the three games in Houston, he allowed 11 runs in three innings. In the other 11 appearances, he allowed three runs in 18 innings.

Speaking with him this weekend, McClain did not want to go down that road, though he did acknowledge that it was a lesson about the importance of protecting signs. 

We'll never know just how much the Astros' methods affected individual games or how many careers were ended as a result, but the players hurt most by it were pitchers like McClain clinging to their big-league dream. 

Earlier this offseason, superstar Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said this about former teammate Kris Medlen:

"The biggest thing for me is, some of those guys that went into Houston — I think everyone knows Kris Medlen around here, one of my favorite teammates of all time. He worked hard to get back to the big leagues. Took him two years to get back in 2018 (with the Arizona Diamondbacks), and he had one start, and it was in Houston, and he gave up seven runs.

“Do I know, was it happening that game? You just don’t know. He retired about a week after that. So, that’s the hard stuff for me.”

Last week, an Astros fan revisited the 2017 season and went game by game, recording the number of trashcan bangs per night. The game that featured the most bangs took place on Aug. 4 and Mike Bolsinger, a right-hander, allowed four runs in one-third of an inning and never again pitched in the majors.

Those are the stories that are really sticking right now with baseball fans outside of Houston.

McClain overcame it. His final five innings last season were scoreless, but more importantly, the stuff was there. 

"When I went to the bullpen, that's when the velocity picked up but without my pitches flattening out," he said. 

In the majors, McClain's fastball and sinker averaged 94 mph and maxed out at 97. The Phillies noticed and late last week added him to the 40-man roster in place of Trevor Kelley, another reliever they had claimed from Boston earlier in the offseason.

The Phillies did not sign a single reliever to a guaranteed contract this offseason, instead bringing in guys like Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris and Drew Storen on minor-league deals, making waiver claims on McClain and Robert Stock and trading for Rays flamethrower Cristopher Sanchez.

The expensive route with relievers has not worked for the Phillies over the last three years. Perhaps this low-risk approach with potential breakout or bounce-back candidates will bear more fruit.

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Jake Arrieta ready to face Yankees on 357 days rest — sort of

Jake Arrieta ready to face Yankees on 357 days rest — sort of

Eight days shy of a year after his last big-league start, Jake Arrieta gets the ball for the Phillies in Yankee Stadium on Monday night.

Arrieta will oppose Yankees ace Gerrit Cole as the Phillies restart their season eight days after their last game.

Since his last start, August 11, 2019 in San Francisco, Arrieta has had elbow surgery, gone through a complete rehab, pitched in spring training, endured a shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ramped up during July summer camp and watched his team play three games then shut down again after the Miami Marlins suffered an outbreak of the virus last weekend at Citizens Bank Park.

With the ballpark closed much of the week, Arrieta and teammate Tommy Hunter found a field in South Jersey and kept their arms loose. Arrieta revved his engines in a workout at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday and believes he can throw 85-plus pitches in his long-awaited season debut Monday night.

"It feels great to finally have a start lined up," he said. "It's been frustrating, but at the same time, I haven't been dwelling on that too much because we are all in a really tough situation having to deal with so many different factors that have kind of derailed the beginning of our season. We knew these were going to be tough times and we're doing the best we can to stay ready.

"I've thrown in a few (simulated) games, I've thrown a bunch of bullpens, extended bullpens to keep the pitch count pretty high. But it's really tough to do unless you're in real-game situations. But I'm in a good spot. I'm going to be able to give my team what we need. I'm really looking forward to getting into a real game finally.

"Physically, I feel pretty close to midseason form as far as the body. There's really no aches and pains, which is something you're accustomed to near midseason. So the body feels pretty fresh, and the feel of all my stuff is there."

The Phillies have yet to announce who will follow Arrieta in the rotation. As if the Phils haven't been through enough with seven postponements, bad weather is steaming up the coast from the south and that could cause more problems with scheduling. Even if Mother Nature cooperates, the Phillies would have to play 57 games in 56 days to play their full 60-game season.

"These are weird times as you know," Arrieta said. "Other teams have been able to play more games than us and haven't been affected schedule-wise as much as we have, but we're not going to complain about it. We can't make any excuses. 

"It would seem that we are at a disadvantage, not being able to play pretty much every day like we're accustomed to. But if you lean too much on that, it could creep into your mind too heavily and could most certainly affect your performance."

The season is just 11 days old and already 33 games around Major League Baseball have been postponed because of COVID-19 concerns. Nonetheless, MLB and the players union remain committed to pushing on with the 60-game season. But given all these starts, stops and postponements, one has to wonder if the season can be pulled off. One has to wonder if there will be a breaking point for the players or the league if the postponements continue to mount.

"I think that we're a ways away from that, based on all the knowledge and the information that I've gathered through the union and through MLB," Arrieta said. "MLB wants to do everything in their power to get this season completed and we do as well. We're committed to doing that.

"I want to see the postseason happen and not have to shut this thing down for good. That would be bad for a lot of reasons. The fans want to see baseball. We want to play. We're going to follow protocols and do everything we can to make sure that happens."

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Amid potentially damaging layoff, is Phillies skipper Joe Girardi angry with Miami Marlins?

Amid potentially damaging layoff, is Phillies skipper Joe Girardi angry with Miami Marlins?

Phillies manager Joe Girardi will set a starting pitching rotation for his team's restart after Sunday's workout.

The Phillies held just their second workout since last weekend Saturday at Citizens Bank Park. Girardi did not name his rotation after that workout because he and pitching coach Bryan Price were still gauging the readiness of arms amid all the starts and stops of this COVID-marred 2020 season. The Phillies still have two starting pitchers, Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin, who have yet to throw a pitch in official game action and the top two of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler will be looking at nine and eight days between starts, respectively, by the time the Phillies resume play against the New York Yankees on Monday night.

On top of this, Phillies hitters haven't seen live pitching with any regularity for the last week.

Good luck in the Bronx. Gerrit Cole could pitch Monday if the Yankees stay on rotation.

"I give our pitchers credit," said Girardi, who, at least publicly, has stayed amazingly upbeat during a trying time. "They've kept up trying to do as much as they could by themselves. I've heard guys throwing baseballs against mattresses and brick walls on the outside of their homes and wherever they are. It's challenging, but we knew that it would be coming into the season. We knew that we had to be somewhat prepared for anything and I think our guys have done a pretty good job of handling that.

"We have to be a little bit cautious because for some of these guys, we were building them up and they were kind of put on hold. Now you have concerns about going back-to-back with relievers for the first time after they were put on hold for a while. I think we'll be cautious a little bit in the beginning. Our starters won't be up to where other teams' starters are that have made two starts and some will be coming up on their third start pretty soon. Our starters won't be there and we just have to deal with it."

Without saying it explicitly, Girardi articulated a flaw in the competitive integrity of this 60-game season. The Phillies played their first three games then, through no fault of their own, were shut down for more than a week because they came into contact with a team that suffered an outbreak of COVID-19. Now, the Phillies will have to somehow shoehorn 57 games into 56 days. There have been multiple reports that some Marlins players ignored MLB protocols for social distancing before playing in Philadelphia last weekend. No Phillies players have tested positive, but the Phils are still paying a price.

Are Phillies players angry at the Marlins?

"I haven't really heard any complaints from our guys, but understand that we don't sit around and talk like we used to. That's just not what we do," Girardi said. "So when we do get a chance, we're pretty much talking about baseball only. I have not heard it, so I can't really tell you exactly how the players feel. I do know that they want to play and they're frustrated that we're not playing right now. They're not blaming anyone, but they want to play. That's what we do. I think our players are handling this great."

How about Girardi? He said he was aware of the reports that the Marlins did not take COVID protocols seriously. He spends significant time every day stressing the importance of protocols to his players. He must be ticked off at the Marlins, right?

"No," Girardi said. "They had one player who had it and then they traveled and they were on buses and planes and no one knew. For me to judge — I could walk in one day and have COVID here and not know it and spread it around."

Girardi said he communicated with some members of the Marlins organization and those people felt "a real sense of guilt and remorse."

Focusing on his own club, Girardi said, "The fortunate thing is it did not spread around our clubhouse. So we just have to make sure our guys are prepared to play Monday and physically they're ready to go. That's my biggest concern."

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