Jesse was set to make his comeback in Reading on Saturday evening, August 16. After seven-weeks of rehab, it was likely we were going to see something interesting. Not only had he just proven to the Phillies that he is still all that and then some with two excellent performances in Clearwater during the 10 days prior, but the Fightin Phils were facing the Binghamton B-Mets with rehabbing pitching great, Daisuke Matsuzaka, on the mound. Yes, folks, the legendary, 34-year-old Japanese phenom, Dice-K facing off against little Jesse Biddle.
Jesse got his chance to show how hard he’d worked in July and the first part of August. But it was an inauspicious night for him, too. After warm-ups where he looked strong and had full command of all his pitches, walking down the dugout steps he felt a hard twinge in his lower right thigh just above the knee. We noticed a slight hobble and “old man” gait as he took the field before the game. Watching him pitch that first inning, his stride was uncharacteristically short and he was consistently up in the zone with his early pitches. The first two batters reached base despite 93-95 mph fastballs with considerable life. All seemed to settle down, though, as Jesse induced a ground ball for a double-play and then got the last out on a deep fly ball to left field.
But he came off the field walking a little more like an old man. Out of the crowd’s sight, we watched him hobble into the clubhouse like he had a peg-leg. Five minutes later he was heading back out to the field as we stood waiting, hoping to get an explanation. Jess just flashed that “fuck the world, I’m having fun” smile he has and said, “knee cramp, right before the game, don’t worry.”
We didn’t worry for two more innings. He was pitching better than we’ve ever seen. The standard, if you were there, should be his first game of 2013 for Reading up in New Hampshire. He went six innings, allowed two hits, one run, struck out six, and walked one. He was in total command of all of his pitches and it was obvious that he was going to have a good season. A few weeks later he struck out 16 and took a perfect game into the 7th inning. The next game he gave up one hit and struck out ten in a no-decision shutout six innings.
And then all hell broke loose — whooping cough for months (it’s also known as the 100-day cough). That eventually morphed into a nasty nasal infection on top of the lingering whooping cough, making it hard to breath for most of the season and causing game-time coughing fits, sometimes out of nowhere; plantar fasciitis kicked in sometime in July and just got worse and worse.
At times the pain and the coughing could be unbearable, but he would hit the mound every 5th day anyway. When you read that he has “command issues” and a “tendency to walk” people there’s a reason: the dude was toughing out some nasty shit. There were a number of games where he would head into the locker room in between innings to hack his guts out where no one had to watch. He would hack and wheeze until he puked, and then keep hacking. Then he would go out and shoot away for 10 -15 minutes as best he could before heading back to the locker room to do it all over again. Doing it all with wicked foot pain probably made it really fun. That was 2013.
2014 should have been different. But things started out weird and, really, just got weirder. He burned his left index finger badly five days before his first outing for the Big League team’s spring training. He pitched in that game after bursting the blister in the bull-pen. He had to pitch all of spring training with his main point of ball contact wounded and sore as hell. That healed, but somehow the Phillies misjudged his pitching schedule. Rather than the 25 or so innings a starter needs, Jesse got 13 innings. He started the season for Reading then — poorly prepared and not fully game ready. It showed a bit in his first few games. It showed up, too, as a tired arm after about 80 pitches in each game of his first month of the season. And he was trying not to be bothered by the fact that the Phillies had done everything to indicate to him he would be assigned to AAA Lehigh Valley up until the last few days of spring training when without warning they moved him on the day of his last outing of camp to the AA team. The move was a surprise to virtually everyone who was following the Phillies. Jesse took it like a pro, but after everything that had happened during the past year it did not feel like the team was giving him much of a vote of confidence.
If you look at Jesse’s stats (most reporters who act like they know what went on with Jesse this season clearly haven’t), he was having a pretty good mid-April to May 19. He was leading the league in strikeouts, walks were way down, batting average against him was around .210, and he was going between 80 and 100 pitches most every outing. He has admitted to feeling stressed out sometimes on the mound and had difficulty keeping himself focused, but he began meditating by late April and was feeling more energized and zeroed in with each passing game.
Then came the Berks County hail storm on the afternoon of May 22. Jesse had tried to drive in it, but his brand new Ford Fusion Hybrid Energi was “totaled,” including a cracked windshield and fully shattered back window. He was trying to get from his apartment complex to the field where his team was preparing to leave on the bus for a weekend road trip. Jesse scrapped his driving plans in the middle of a curtain of a golf-ball to tennis-ball sized ice bombs and ran from his car to a nearby restaurant for cover. His knuckles were bleeding from trying to protect his head with his hands. He was bleeding from the back of his head, too, where he’d been struck with a ball of ice that was probably a bit smaller than a tennis ball.
He would be an hour and a half late getting to the bus. The Phillies did not diagnose a concussion until the next day. Jesse would be held from his next start but was miraculously cleared to throw on May 31st — just 10 days after his run in with the heavens. He got the loss, but threw okay, giving up 5 hits and just three runs, striking out three, and walking three in six innings of work. Things would slide after that. He was beginning to feel odd on the mound and not himself. He threw in four games where things got progressively worse more or less. By late June the Phillies decided to give him time to reboot. They put him on the temporary inactive list and sent him down to their training facility in Florida. Tests over the first few days down there indicated post-concussion issues that would require both rehab work, and just time to heal. Feelings of not being yourself and being oddly out of sorts are a common post-concussion syndrome.
Media and press stories came out talking about how Jesse needed a mental break and that he was “depressed” or that he was “struggling mentally” or that he “couldn’t handle the pressure.” If you’ve read this far, we’re going to guess you understand all of that is basically a complete fabrication. Yes, Jesse Biddle has been dealing with a fair amount of stress over the past 16 months or so, but what was mostly going on for him from late May through June was struggling again with an odd physical limitation. He was recovering from a weird concussion.
Here’s the amazing thing: during his time in Florida, Jesse was able to focus on returning to fundamentals. He talked on the phone with Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay. He also worked with a number of Phillies’ staffers every morning for about seven weeks. When he was finally cleared to compete, he threw five innings of no-hit, one walk baseball in a Threshers game, then followed that up with a funky five inning, 2-hit outing where while he walked five, he said he was shocked at how easy it was to throw 94 mph. It was like he had just stepped into a Ferrari and didn’t know how to manage the new horsepower. He also had refined his change-up and slider while returning to his fundamentals. He was ready to kick some ass.
So, when Jesse finally made it back to Reading to pitch last Saturday, we knew something special was coming. And, truthfully, even with a messed up knee that got worse and worse as the game wore on, we saw what he and the Phillies staff in Florida had accomplished. He had trouble with his breaking balls because he couldn’t land on that right leg. His stride was about five feet, not the usual six and a half feet or so that is standard for him. But the fastball and change-up were humming. He didn’t have the command he had way back there in early April of 2013 when he was so dominating in New Hampshire, but still, no one could touch his pitches. The few hits he gave up were little squib shots. Yes he had a few walks in the fourth inning, but by then he could barely walk (it was pathetic really). And, yes, the final straw was walking Matsuzaka on four straight pitches (although in Dice-K’s at-bat before Jesse got behind 3-0 when the pitcher was trying to bunt, and then struck him out on three straight untouchable fastballs). Walking Matsuzaka with the bases loaded. Walking in a run by walking the pitcher. Kind of a no-no for any pro pitcher.
More than anything, the way we know he’s fine and all the way back is from watching his one chance at the plate. He was facing Dice-K. The first pitch was a perfect fastball that he was determined not to swing at. The second one was a high, modestly inside fasty that he didn’t quite get the full barrel on. He used a nice little inside-out swing and hit a tailing fly ball to left field. Yup, it was an out, but that didn’t matter. We hadn’t seen Jesse hit like that since late spring of 2013. You could tell he was seeing the ball and that he had all the confidence in the world. It really looked like he had no doubt he could hit one out. The problem is that he had to sprint down to first with that shot. By the time he got to the bag his thigh was fully blown out. He went back out to pitch, but he was moving like he was 100-years-old. Nothing like life as a professional athlete.
He’s been diagnosed with a Grade-2 quadriceps strain. He’s done for the season. Hopefully, he will heal fast enough to be able to go back down to Florida for a month or so during Fall Instructionals to work with the same staff that got him up to this new level of competence. No games more than likely, just drills and hard work. He’s learned a lot, we think. You can see this season as a bust. You can see last season the same way. But we don’t think so. And we’re pretty sure Jesse won’t either when he looks back on his days as a AA player. This game is the weirdest game ever invented. Consequently, weird shit happens to players all the time.
Players have to learn to deal with injury and setbacks. They have to learn to deal with media stories that are made up and opinions about them that go from far too laudatory to strangely dismissive. They also need to learn to see stress and strain for what it is and go through it to their strength and confidence. We see all of that now. Jesse is living it. He has five months to prepare for Florida 2015. Rest assured he’ll be ready to go to work again. Watching this kid slowly build himself into a pitcher is quite a treat. He’s not done yet. Stay tuned. There’s no “hoping” here, just hard work and knowing.
…see you out there in about five months. Bring a lot of lumber, you’re going to need it.