PHILADELPHIA – Dick Groch is more famously known as the scout who signed Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for the New York Yankees. Well before that slice of history, Groch coached college baseball at St. Clair Community College and formed a bond with his catcher, future Team Canada Olympian Rob Thomson.
Turns out, Groch isn’t done scouting.
He sends Thomson, in his second season as manager of the NL champion Phillies, a report card on his former pupil every few weeks.
“What I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong,” Thomson said with a laugh. “He’s like my dad, he’s tough.”
And how was the most recent review?
“Better,” Thomson said. “The first one wasn’t too good.”
That’s because, well, the Phillies weren’t too good. The Phillies started 0-4 and 5-10 and labored under .500 until their 1-0 win over Seattle on Thursday got them to .500 for the first time this season. Up next, a six-game road trip that starts Friday at Houston, before three more in Los Angeles.
Yes, Houston. It’s where the postseason good times got rolling when the Phillies clinched their first postseason berth since 2011 in game No. 160 last season. Philadelphia also ended last season in Houston after the Astros won the World Series in six games.
Winning a few games in Houston won’t erase the Series sting. But it could hasten the push toward another postseason run.
“There’s going to be some uncomfortable memories I might have to confront,” outfielder Nick Castellanos said. “Like being the last out of the World Series. But I’m excited to get back there.”
Castellanos struck out 10 times in the World Series as the Phillies whiffed a record 71 times in six games. But they return with first baseman Rhys Hoskins possibly out for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee; slugger Bryce Harper is recovering from elbow surgery.
“We still have a lot of big missing pieces,” Castellanos said.
When the Phillies come back home, help could be on the way.
The Phillies should know after Harper’s May 1 exam with Dr. Neal ElAttrache — the orthopedic surgeon who performed Harper’s Tommy John surgery last fall — if the two-time NL MVP can return to the lineup.
Harper certainly has passed the eye test. He slugs Bryce bombs in batting practice, throws without pain, practiced fielding grounders at first base, runs the bases and has modified his slide, all in attempt to defy modern science and return from major surgery in less than six months.
Thomson remained cautiously optimistic that Harper is healthy enough to get cleared.
“In my mind, I think so,” Thomson said. “But you don’t know until the doc sees him.”
Harper is scheduled to take BP on Friday and Sunday in Houston.
“I think that Bryce is an extremely intelligent individual, especially when it comes to his craft,” Castellanos said. “Whatever he says about his pace of being ready and being back on the field, I’m going to trust 100%.”
The Phillies have started to figure things out, and have won three straight series against the White Sox, Colorado and the Mariners. They have aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler lined up for the first two starts against the Astros. Though both pitchers have been erratic this season — and each have ERAs ballooned over 4.00 — Nola and Wheeler are still the ones the Phillies want on the bump in a big series.
Oh, and the Phillies still expect shortstop Trea Turner — in the first season of a $300-million, 11-year deal — to start hitting. He did hit his first homer as a Phillie at Citizens Bank Park but otherwise batted .138 (4-for-29) on the 5-2 homestand.
“I think everybody expects a little bit more,” Thomson said, “And they’re going to get more.”
Thomson gave the Phillies in spring training his five pillars to playing well: respect the game, prepare, compete, be selfless, be yourself.
“I told them as long as we do that, we’re going to be fine,” Thomson said. “That’s what they’re doing. They’re very consistent with how they’re doing their business.”
Don’t forget, the Phillies were 22-29 last year when they fired manager Joe Girardi, only to use a nine-game win streak to push them over .500 and never look back on their way to October.
So it’s off to Houston, where if the pain of the World Series defeat still lingered, Thomson wasn’t letting on.
“I see it as just another game, just another series,” he said.
It’s a series not The Series, and they likely won’t get there again without Harper.