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Addition of Roy Oswalt makes second-place Phillies a favorite to make late-season playoff run

By Dave Sheinin
Saturday, July 31, 2010; D01

Little Roy, as Roy Oswalt apparently will be known in the Philadelphia Phillies' Roy-infested clubhouse, walked into Nationals Park shortly after 3 o'clock Friday afternoon, still reeling from the events of the previous 24 hours -- when he was traded from the only franchise he had ever known, the Houston Astros, and informed his first game in a Phillies uniform would also be his first start.

"It's hard to gain 30 games [in the standings] overnight," Oswalt said late Friday night, with a sly grin on his face. Of the nerves he felt, he said, "It's kind of like your first game in the big leagues."

Between the shock of being traded, the toll of the hastily arranged travel, the rushed greetings of new teammates and the mental drain of preparing to pitch in the middle of a pennant race, Oswalt lost track of his fastball, and he paid for it in an 8-1 loss to the Nationals.

Struggling with his command from the start, Oswalt gave up a triple to Washington's Nyjer Morgan on his first pitch in a Phillies uniform, was down a run two batters into the game and departed after six mediocre innings.

"I started out on the wrong foot," Oswalt said. "I think next start, I'll be a little better-tuned."

By game time, as Oswalt's initial trip to the mound was being cheered by a sizable pro-Phillies faction at Nationals Park, the night felt like the start of something for the Phillies -- a new chapter, a new beginning, or merely a new Roy. When it was over, it felt like the end of something -- namely, the Phillies' eight-game winning streak.

Over the previous week or so, the Phillies had revived their season, jumping from seven games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East to just 2 1/2 games back -- the closest they had been in more than a month -- entering Friday's play.

There is an unwritten pact between players and management in any given franchise: If the players do their part to get the team into contention in late July, management will do them a solid, by acquiring the piece that could push them over the top. And nowhere has that pact been upheld more faithfully than Philadelphia.

The Oswalt deal, General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s latest coup, marked the fifth consecutive year the Phillies have added a front-line starting pitcher around the trade deadline, a string that stretches back to Jamie Moyer (2006) and also includes Kyle Lohse (2007), Joe Blanton (2008) and Cliff Lee (2009).

And that's not to mention current staff ace Roy Halladay -- "Big Roy," as Rollins has taken to calling him, in order to distinguish him from Little Roy -- whom the Phillies picked up in a blockbuster trade last Dec. 16, essentially swapping the game's top lefty (Lee) for the game's top righty (Halladay) in separate deals that came one day apart. In Philadelphia, Oswalt will forever be compared to Lee -- as the most recent trade has been widely interpreted as an attempt to undo the damage of the much-criticized decision to deal Lee -- but that's a comparison Oswalt can never win. Oswalt gave up four earned runs Friday night; in 2009, Lee made it into the fourth inning of his sixth start for the Phillies before he gave up his fourth earned run in that uniform.

But the Oswalt trade makes sense. The cost was moderate, in terms of both prospects and money. And it came at the high point of the Phillies' season, with the team buoyed by the feeling of slowly becoming whole again.

Jimmy Rollins (bruised left foot) was back in their lineup Friday night for the first time in five days. All-star second baseman Chase Utley (broken thumb) is taking grounders and could come off the disabled list in a few more weeks. Center fielder Shane Victorino (strained abdominal muscle) is perhaps two weeks from a return.

Since he possessed full no-trade privileges, Oswalt had the right to veto any trade, and he was bemused by the various media reports saying he wasn't fond of Philadelphia. "A lot of the reports," he said, "were just made up. I heard a lot of stuff I [supposedly] said that I never said."

When it came time to decide, Oswalt called his former teammate, Phillies closer Brad Lidge, got the scoop on the city and the team's chemistry, and quickly approved the trade.

"The playoffs," Oswalt said, describing what appealed to him about the move, "is where true baseball is at."

For the Phillies, the underlying motivation behind the Oswalt trade was both to help get them to October and, once they do that, to stay for the whole month. It wasn't impossible for the Phillies to get to the postseason without Oswalt. But until Thursday, they were one front-line starting pitcher shy of the horsepower needed to make a deep run.

"We got better," Manuel said when the trade was announced. "We added a top-of-the-rotation starter in his prime. This sends a message to Philadelphia and all of baseball that we want to win."

After three straight division titles and two straight trips to the World Series, winning has become an expectation in Philadelphia -- which carries its own set of joys and pressures. Just getting to October is no longer enough. Big Roy alone was not enough. The Phillies needed one more horse. They needed Little Roy.

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