Preview: The Ryder Cup

Preview: The Ryder Cup

With the success of the 2010 AT&T National at Aronimink this summer and the advance of the U.S. Open at Merion in 2013, professional golf has returned to the Philadelphia area in a big way. Regardless of whether you, our loyal readers, play the game yourselves, it should be noted that our town lays claim to one of the strongest golf traditions in the country. Just take a look at a Google Map satellite over the area in and around 309 at Fort Washington to see the outrageous number of private country clubs all dating back roughly a century. The phrase "densely populated" comes to mind.

Now, even if golf isn't exactly your thing, I'm going to try to appeal to you on a basis I think we can all appreciate: blind patriotic support for national sporting endeavors. This, of course, brings me to this week's Ryder Cup. If at some points it seems like I'm going a bit overboard from here on out -- I'm not. This is golf people. We're going to war.

Having made their way to the Celtic Manor Resort in South Wales, golf's best will be teeing it up on the brand new "Twenty Ten Course," the first golf course ever built specifically for the purpose of hosting a Ryder Cup. Well, alright, it isn't exactly new. The track is actually just an extensively remodeled version of something originally built in 1999 called Wentwood Hills. This sort of dubious posturing should prove readily apparent to the most ardent patriots as a disingenuous attempt by some shifty Europeans to one-up us on their own soil, and I, for one, won't have it. Alright, I'm going overboard.

On to the golf itself, Corey Pavin's boys in the Red, White & Blue will be facing off against a very deep European squad led by 0-time Major Champion Colin Montgomerie. Comparing the squads on paper and factoring in some relevant history, like the fact that the United States has not won on European soil since 1993, puts the Americans at what appears to be a disadvantage. However, since the PGA Tour had instituted the Fed-Ex Cup playoff system in 2007, the United States has gone a perfect 3-0 in international competition. World #2 Phil Mickelson attributes the success to the forced change in schedule:

"In the past before team events, we would have six weeks off after the last major championship, the PGA, where guys would kind of shut it down," Mickelson said. "With the FedEx Cup it's kept our games sharp, and so the by-product has been we've had great performances in the last three team competitions.

But, as ESPN golf writer Jason Sobel's above article goes to speculate, with 9 of the 12 team members having played the last four weeks in a row, fatigue could become an issue. Either way, the two sides enter this weekend at vastly different conditions as related to both mental and physical rest. 

One American who will not be bothered by fatigue, however, is Tiger Woods, who required a captain's pick just to make the team after failing to earn an automatic berth. Having not qualified for last week's Tour Championship at East Lake, the best in the world had the week off to work on his game and, well, whatever else it is he now does with his time. While showing flashes of brilliance during brief periods since his return, his back-9 during the third round of this year's U.S. Open, for example, Woods also hit a distinct rock bottom at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. Finishing second to last in an event he usually owns, Tiger posted his worst 72-hole score ever as a professional.  2010 has been  in many ways a referendum on Woods both as a golfer and as a person. I personally am going to stay away from his family situation for the purposes of this discussion and stick only to what he does on the course.

In light of all the above, and fill in the blanks where necessary, other golfers, specifically 21-year-old European Team Member Rory McIlroy, see enough chinks in Woods' armor to get unusually brazen with the former juggernaut. In a press conference earlier this week, McIlroy declared:

"I would love to face him," McIlroy, who won the Quail Hollow Championship in May for his first PGA Tour victory, said in an interview with the BBC last month. "Unless his game rapidly improves in the next month or so, I think anyone in the European team would fancy his chances against him."

When asked for his own comment, Woods coldly responded with only, "me too." Discussion on the subject was then closed. U.S. Captain Corey Pavin is, at least publicly, ruling out a direct grudge match between the two. Still, it should be interesting to see if Woods will face McIlroy during either the team matches Friday and Saturday, or, god-willing, in singles on Sunday. In the event that he does, can Tiger finally channel all his frustration, sorrow and disappointment into one truly dramatic comeback performance this weekend?

Golf fans have been so eager to declare Tiger "back" over the last 6 months that it's become a recurring tease. Every time he takes one step forward, he almost immediately takes two steps back. As such, do not take whatever happens this weekend as kind of definitive statement about where Woods will go from here. With only two months to go until Thanksgiving, the one year anniversary of his life's unraveling, the last ten months have clearly been the most trying of his life and figure to only bring more challenges (like possibly spending this year's Turkey Day away from his ex-wife and children). Listen, I want the old Tiger Woods back as much as everyone else; I'm just saying that he's clearly going to have to do it on his own time, when he gets his own life in order. Whatever happens at Celtic Manor this weekend, good or bad, it will be just one more step on a long road back to normalcy and shouldn't be viewed as symbolically representative of anything larger.

This, on the other hand, should be taken exactly that way. Give 'em hell, boys.

(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Europe)

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

TAMPA -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

TAMPA -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.