Ever since he made his big league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in June of 1999, Randy Wolf has had about as enigmatic of a professional career as one could imagine.
After zipping through the Phillies farm system, the lefty hurler won his first five starts in a major league uniform. Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade and then-manager Terry Francona were beginning to believe that Wolf was a steal in the second round of the 1997 amateur draft. But faster than Phillies fans could say “Steve Carlton,” Wolf and his young career hit the skids.
Wolf dropped his next eight decisions and finished his rookie year with a 5.55 ERA and disappointing 6-9 record. All the confidence and respect that Wolf had earned in his first month with the Phillies dissolved. Would he be a future staff ace or just another in a long line of pyrrhic pitching prospects?
Over the next two seasons, Wolf would go through his share of both ups and downs pitching for perennially mediocre Phillies ball clubs. In 2000, his 11 wins lead the team, and it seemed Wolf was back on the right track. His follow up campaign did not go as smoothly, as Wolf finished the season under .500 while enduring a string of injuries accompanied by stints in the bullpen and the minors.
But this year, amidst a post-All-Star game surge that has rendered Wolf virtually untouchable, he is threatening to turn otherwise skeptical Phillies fans into believers.
In his first 11 starts following the mid-season break, Wolf has posted a 7-1 record with a 1.62 ERA. His three complete games this season came in four starts from August 16 through September 5 ? all victories. Wolf was on the hill for all but one of 36 innings in that span. The 26-year-old also went a period of 27 innings without surrendering a run during that stretch. Impressive numbers, even when compared to those of a more famous national league southpaw named Randy.
Known around the league for his command against left-handed hitters, Wolf has been equally effective against righty swingers this season, as well. Opponents are hitting a mere .217 from the right side against Wolf this year, 51 points lower than in 2001.
Rarely a threat to overpower a batter, Wolf’s repertoire consists of a cut fastball, a changeup that he places with precision and a good slider and curveball. Like crafty veterans Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer, Wolf retires hitters by changing speeds and hitting his spots. Keeping batters off balance has been crucial to his recent success.
Wolf has also killed off any lingering doubts left from a torn ligament in his throwing arm suffered early in the year. Severe tendonitis caused Wolf to miss his first two starts of the season and had left him tentative following the rehabilitation process.
“I went back to the way I wanted to throw the ball,” Wolf said in early August. “When I first came back I didn’t want to rehurt myself and I think I was throwing the ball differently. It definitely had a negative effect on me.”
Getting ahead in the count, staying aggressive on the mound and cutting down on his mistakes are all key elements that have helped Wolf win seven of his last eight decisions.
Phillies manager Larry Bowa has been thrilled with Wolf’s recent performance upgrade.
“He’s been phenomenal,” said Bowa. “He’s what an ace does. He saves your bullpen, keeps you in the game, and wins against a really good hitting lineup. He’s starting to spoil us.”
Wolf’s emergence as a number one starter could not have come at a better time for the Phillies. Veteran workhorse Robert Person was lost for the season in late July to shoulder surgery and young arms Brandon Duckworth and Brett Myers have each struggled through bouts of inconsistency.
Now in his fourth season with Philly, Wolf’s pitching tools seem to have finally caught up with his previously untapped potential. Wolf has discovered the method and stability that will allow him to be a quality major league pitcher for years to come.
And while the greatness of Wolf’s future contributions to the Phillies is still unknown, one thing is for sure ? he is finally ready to evolve from staff question mark to the rotation’s exclamation point.
Gerton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.