The swagger is gone – in the clubhouse and in the bleachers – and you have to wonder if it will ever come back.
The Phillies are in last place and it’s not a fluke – they’ve earned it. They’ve had too many games where they didn’t hit well enough or pitch well enough or play defense well enough, and there have been times when they didn’t do any of them well enough.
This, of course, wasn’t expected. We’ve been spoiled around here the last five or six years and it’s gotten to the point where humdrum things like division titles are taken for granted. Fans around the Delaware Valley set the alarm for the playoffs and maybe hit the snooze button a couple of times until the World Series. But now the Phillies and their fans have gotten an early wakeup call after being spanked in series by the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, two teams the Phils used to dominate.
And now the rest of NL East sees that, finally, the Phillies are vulnerable.
It’s a long, 162-game season, of course, and it’s way too early to panic. But it’s not too early to be concerned – very concerned. It wasn’t that long ago that the Phillies lost the division title by a game and then won the division title by a game. And that means every game counts, even the ugly ones in April and May.
The Phillies, as expected, keep telling us that this is just a slow start and eventually the juggernaut that won five straight NL East titles will take control of the division once again and chase another World Series championship. The Phils are convinced they’re just in a slump, but when a slump lasts a couple months it’s no longer a slump – it’s reality.
Even the Phillies’ celebrated starting pitching hasn’t been enough to keep them out of the division cellar, and who would have thought a pitching staff that includes Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels could lose more games that it won?
It’s hard to find fault with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who has pulled off so many amazing deals the last few years. But Amaro, a sure-handed infielder in his playing days, muffed it when he decided to re-sign shortstop Jimmy Rollins – currently hitting .230 – instead of using that money on a heavy-hitting left-fielder.
And even though it’s not Amaro’s fault that Chase Utley has bad knees or Ryan Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon, Amaro knew Howard wouldn’t be able to play for half the season and he had to at least suspect that Utley’s knee problems would flare up again, since it’s a degenerative condition. Yet he did nothing to land a big bopper to make up for the loss of his top two RBI men. Instead, he crossed his fingers and hoped that Rollins and Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco would bounce back from bad 2011 seasons (they haven’t) and that John Mayberry Jr.’s solid 2011 season wasn’t a mirage (it was). And then he signed bench players like Laynce Nixon and Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton, good moves at a time the GM needed at least one great one.
Also, Amaro’s attempts to rebuild his bullpen have failed badly, so his team has been losing games even when they score runs and one of his aces goes seven strong innings. Again, it’s hard to second-guess Amaro for signing closer Jonathan Papelbon, who’s pitched pretty well, but nobody has any confidence in the bullpen now, which means you can expect to see those stud starters going deeper and deeper into games.
Manager Charlie Manuel hasn’t helped either, especially since this is the first time in years that he’s actually had to manage. But his constantly changing lineups have kept his players from getting into any kind of comfort zone. Manuel platoons players at different times, which is understandable, but you also get the idea he gets his batting order from throwing darts, because it’s a different one every night.
Here’s one suggestion: Get Rollins out of the No. 1 and 3 spots in the batting order, where he’s hit all season, and put him where he belongs, at the bottom of the order. Manuel has mostly platooned the speedy Pierre in left field, but the guy’s hitting .341, so make him your everyday left fielder and your every day leadoff hitter.
Then stick Polanco at No. 2, Pence at No. 3, the first baseman du jour (either Nix, Wigginton or Mayberry) at No. 4, catcher Carlos Ruiz at No. 5, Victorino at No. 6, Rollins at No. 7 and the second baseman du jour (either Freddie Galvis or Pete Orr) at No. 8.
That still might not be enough to turn things around for the suddenly phloundering Phils, but it would be a step in the right direction. And the Phillies need to start taking those steps before it’s too late, because it’s getting later every day.
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.