Monday, February 13, 2012

Random Past Phillie: Mike Grace

At long last, we have our newest Random Past Phillie! Suggestions are always welcome. Quick shoutout to retrosheet.org and baseball-reference.com for some of the particulars.

Name:
Michael James Grace
Position: Pitcher
Born: June 20, 1970 in Joliet, Illinois
Acquired: Selected in the 10th round of the 1991 Draft
Phillies Debut: September 1, 1995
Final Phillies Game: October 1, 1999
Uniform Number: 44

About Mike Grace: Of all the labels one can place on a professional athlete, few carry quite the stigma as "injury prone" does. Regardless of the circumstances, such a label generally stays with a player for the duration of his career and can give to some the perception that he is soft. In many cases, the injuries have a way of piling up. Sometimes, it can be a case of coming back too soon. Other times, overcompensating for one injury can lead to a different one somewhere else. And sometimes, they just happen. It was a little bit of everything for Mike Grace during his brief Major League Baseball career. A 6'4" righthander with a quirky delivery, Grace suffered a series of injuries during his minor league career but overcame them and burst on the scene to become one of the game's top pitchers early in the 1996 season. Unfortunately, the injury bug would bite again to wipe out Grace's very promising rookie campaign, and eventually his career.

Mike Grace was originally selected by the San Diego Padres in the 7th round of the 1988 Draft, but opted instead to attend Bradley University. Three years later, he was a 10th-round selection of the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he signed. Grace didn't disappoint in his first season of pro ball, going 4-3 with a 1.64 ERA in 12 combined starts between class "A" Batavia and Spartanburg. It would be a different story in 1992, however, as elbow problems limited him to just six starts at Spartanburg. "Problems" are somewhat of an understatement here, as the next time Grace set foot on a professional mound was two years and four surgeries later. He found himself back at Spartanburg after recovering, going 5-5 with a 4.82 ERA in 15 starts. Finally healthy again in 1995, Grace responded with a 13-6 record and 3.54 ERA in 24 starts for "AA" Reading, before being promoted to "AAA" Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After winning both of his starts at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and fashioning a 1.59 ERA to boot, Grace was among those who got the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September of '95.

On September 1, 1995, Mike Grace made his debut for the Phillies against the San Diego Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium. It was far from an impressive first start, as Grace allowed four runs on eight hits over 4 and 1/3 innings in a 6-3 loss. The second time around proved to be a charm for Grace, however, as he allowed two hits over seven scoreless innings against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on September 7. Ismael Valdez was even stingier over those first seven frames, shutting out the Phils on one hit before allowing singles to Jim Eisenreich and Andy Van Slyke. After Mike Lieberthal advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt, Kevin Elster lifted a sacrifice fly to score Eisenreich with what turned out to be the game's only run and gave Grace his first MLB victory. As luck would have it, that turned out to be Grace's final appearance with the Phillies in 1995, as a shoulder injury put him on the shelf for the season's remaining three weeks.

Though the Phillies liked what they saw of Grace during his two '95 starts with the parent club, it was assumed heading into Spring Training that he'd be opening the 1996 season with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Grace had learned the hard way that injuries can nearly derail a player's career, but the flip side of that is they can create opportunities for others. When numerous Phillies pitchers were sidelined prior to the '96 campaign, it put Grace in position to win a spot in the club's Opening Day starting rotation. He did just that, and in fact was given the start in the second game of the season. The placement of Grace in the second slot was more a case of splitting up two lefthanders in Sid Fernandez and Terry Mulholland than anything else, but you could've fooled the Colorado Rockies. Grace stymied the potent Colorado lineup in his '96 debut, giving up four hits over eight scoreless innings. His shutout bid and outing itself came to an end when Ellis Burks led off the ninth with a titanic home run into the left field upper deck at Veterans Stadium, but Ricky Bottalico preserved a 3-1 lead to give both Grace and the Phillies their first victory of 1996.

Grace did hit some bumps in the road over his next two starts, allowing 11 runs (10 earned) in 11 innings. He managed to come away with a 7-6 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 10 thanks to a three-run home run by Benito Santiago that erased a 5-4 deficit in the seventh, but was unable to hold a 5-0 lead against the Montreal Expos his next time out. Grace ended up with a no-decision in a 7-6 loss at Olympic Stadium, the big blow a sixth-inning grand slam by Shane Andrews that tied the game at 6-6. The struggles would be short-lived, though, as Grace upped his record to 5-0 by allowing just two earned runs over 23 and 2/3 innings in victories over the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Florida Marlins. He departed his next outing against the Houston Astros with a 5-3 lead after six innings, but a fourth straight winning start proved elusive as Houston rallied for a 7-5 victory.

On May 12, Grace took the mound against the defending World Champion Atlanta Braves and Greg Maddux, winner of the previous four National League Cy Young Awards. Atlanta had won the first two games of a weekend set at Veterans Stadium, and were in prime position for a sweep as Maddux in his prime against a rookie seemed like a Mother's Day mismatch. It was, but not in the way you'd expect as the Phils jumped on Maddux for three runs in the first. That proved to be ample support for Grace, who went the distance for the first time in his MLB career, allowing four hits in a 6-0 shutout victory. Flying under the radar for what would eventually be a last-place Phillies team, it seemed like maybe they had unearthed a gem. What nobody knew at the time was that Mike Grace's career had hit its ceiling.

After defeating Atlanta, Grace suffered his first two losses of the '96 season, falling to the Dodgers and Padres, respectively. He rebounded with a 9-3 win over the Dodgers on May 28, but left his next start (June 2 against the Padres) in the fifth inning after experiencing shoulder discomfort. The Phils blew a 6-0 lead against San Diego that day, but managed to eek out a 9-8 victory thanks to a walkoff RBI single by Ricky Otero in the bottom of the 12th. The bad news was that Grace had severe inflammation in his shoulder and would end up missing the rest of the season after going 7-2 with a 3.49 ERA. After recovering from the shoulder injury, Grace went down with a triceps injury during Spring Training in 1997, and spent most of the season recovering in the minors. He'd return to the big club in late August, where he was 3-2 with a 3.46 ERA in six starts.

Included among those six starts was Grace's finest outing as a Phillie, a 5-0 three-hit shutout of the New York Yankees on September 2. Never known for having pinpoint control, Grace surrendered no walks and the defense made all the plays behind him, as his only strikeout of the night came when he got Tim Raines looking to end the game. Thanks to two double plays and a caught stealing, the Yankees only sent the minimum 27 batters to the plate in nine innings. Between Terry Mulholland's no-hitter in 1990 (one batter reached on an error but was erased on a double play) and Roy Halladay's perfect game in 2010, Grace was the only Phillies pitcher to accomplish this feat.

Grace's encouraging return to action late in the 1997 season landed him a spot in the rotation when 1998 came around. Unfortunately, he was unable to take advantage of this opportunity, as a 3-5 record and 5.65 ERA got him sent back to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in early June. He returned to the Phillies in August, but didn't fare any better en route to finishing the '98 campaign at 4-7 with a 5.48 ERA in 21 appearances (15 starts). It was even worse for Grace in 1999. Relegated to long relief, he went 1-1 with an ugly 7.50 ERA in 21 games out of the bullpen before being demoted in early July. Grace rejoined the rotation upon his recall to the parent club in September, but went 0-3 in five starts. He made what turned out to be his last MLB appearance during a 7-4 loss to the Expos at Veterans Stadium on October 1, allowing two runs in 1 and 2/3 innings. In all, Grace worked in 27 games for the Phillies in '99 (five starts), going 1-4 with a 7.68 ERA. Granted free agency, Grace moved on to the Baltimore Orioles organization in 2000 and then to the Cincinnati Reds in 2001, not reaching the majors for either club over his final two pro seasons.

Personal Recollection: I'll admit it, I was a big Mike Grace fan. I've mentioned on here before that I always tried to wear number 17 for each baseball team I played on, with Ricky Jordan being the reason. Most years, I played on multiple teams and was usually successful in getting that number with at least one of them. In 1996, I only played for one team and number 17 wasn't available, so I took 44 instead. There must have been something about that number, as you know all about Grace's fate by now. In my case, I also got off to a great start. I think I gave up something like one run in the first 25 innings I pitched that season while hitting close to .600. Then I came down with mono. I foolishly tried to play through it, but my ERA over my last four or five appearances was probably close to what Grace had in his last two seasons with the Phillies and if I hit above .200 over the last ten or so games of the season, it wasn't by much. Needless to say, I never wore number 44 again.

I think what I liked best about Grace was his delivery, which had a real high leg kick and seemed like he was going in a million different directions. It could be very deceptive, but the problem was that he threw across his body with that delivery, and that probably had more than a little to do with all of his injury woes. Grace also seemed to have that unflappable, "whatever" kind of personality, kind of like what we see in Cliff Lee. Of course, that plays a lot better when you're winning.

I was at the game where Grace shut out the Braves and defeated Greg Maddux in the process. There weren't a while lot of bright spots for the Phillies in 1996, but that was certainly one of them. It's impossible to say what would've happened over the remainder of the '96 season, but I do believe Grace was the frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year at the time he got hurt. Three of his last four outings before the injury were subpar, and maybe the league's hitters were starting to adjust to him. They certainly seemed to have Grace figured out in 1998 and 1999. But we'll never know for sure. As it was, Todd Hollandsworth won the Rookie of the Year in '96, the fifth straight Dodger to do so. That streak was broken by Scott Rolen in 1997.

Grace's shutout against the Yankees in '97 was a thing of beauty. I guess you can't call a one-strikeout performance dominant, but he kept them off-balance all night. That was the middle game in that great three-game sweep at the Vet, with the first one being Curt Schilling's 16-strikeout masterpiece and the finale being won on a walkoff walk by Tony Barron. Fun times in an era when there weren't a whole lot of those. Too bad it ended up being the last hurrah for Grace. I really would've liked to have seen him overcome all the injuries and have a nice career. Oh well, at least he had his moments.

That's my story on Mike Grace. Feel free to share your own recollections.

2 comments:

  1. Career stats for Mike Grace: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/G/Pgracm002.htm

    Grace's minor league stats: http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=grace-002mic

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  2. I remember Mike Grace's hot start to '96. I was a Sophomore in high school and obsessed with the Phils. Man was that a bad time to be obsessed with the Phils! haha. Great writeup.

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