The Phillies have already started chanting their “It’s a long season’’ mantra, which is what teams do when they stumble at the start of that season the way the Phils have done. And, of course, they are right. The major-league baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, and with more than 150 games left to play it’s obviously way too early to panic.
But it’s not too early to at least think about panicking. The Phillies haven’t played very well and the players on whom they were depending the most – notably Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard – haven’t done their jobs. The season is barely a week old and, after Monday night’s 7-2 loss to the Mets, the Phils are in fourth place in the five-team National League East and they’re already four games out of first place.
And even though it’s a long season, sometimes marathons are lost because a mistake at the beginning of the race impacts what happens at the end of it. Major league teams play 162 games, but the division title usually comes down to just one or two games, and sometimes those games are the ones they played in the first week of the season.
So, even though we don’t expect the Phillies to wring their hands in despair over their slow start, we don’t want to see them shrugging it off, either. The division has two 2012 playoff teams that have gotten off to good starts, Atlanta and Washington, and even the stinkin’ Mets are playing pretty good baseball. That’s why the Phillies have to win now. They can’t wait until July to get hot and get on a roll, because they could be buried in NL East by then.
Certainly, the Phillies can’t have their (supposed) best pitcher get lit up in his first two starts like Hamels did. He won’t pitch that poorly all season, of course, but even a couple of stinkers – especially Sunday’s loss to Kansas City when Hamels was handed a 4-0 lead in the first inning – could be enough to doom the Phillies when this marathon finally ends.
Nor can the Phillies sit around and wait for Roy Halladay’s problems to solve themselves. What good will it do them if he gets his act together a month from now? There’s nothing the Phillies can do, of course, except send Halladay out to the mound every fifth day and hope for the best, but they’re not even sure what Halladay’s best is anymore.
Another problem that won’t go away is something that used to be this team’s greatest strength – the long ball. Not too long ago, the Phillies won games by smashing home runs and they had a lineup filled with players who could jack one at any time – Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, even Shane Victorino. In 2008 and 2009, when the Phillies established their dominance in the division, they hit a combined 438 home runs, the most in the major leagues.
Now look at their current lineup and how many fence-busters do you see? Howard, of course, but you have to hit the ball before you can hit it out of the park and the Phillies’ big bopper batted just .148 in their 2-5 start, with no home runs – in fact, Howard doesn’t have an extra base hit of any kind. Howard usually starts slowly, then heats up when the weather does, but, once again, that could be too late. The Phillies need his run production now, not just in July and August.
As for the rest of the lineup, it’s mostly singles and doubles hitters. Utley and Rollins can still knock one out and others are capable, but none of them has ever done it consistently. Certainly, nobody else in the lineup scares opposing pitchers and perhaps that is really the biggest difference in this team over the last several years. Enemy pitchers used to hate to face the Phillies because they knew the Phils had so many hitters who could hurt them with one swing of the bat. You might get one of them out or even two of them, but eventually somebody was going to hit the ball hard.
And now? Well, they pitch carefully to Howard and make him fish for those low breaking balls he can’t seem to leave alone. Eventually, he’ll strike out or hit the ball right at the defense that overplays him to pull the ball to right field, which he almost always does.
But you don’t see anybody pitching around John Mayberry Jr. or Domonic Brown or Michael Young or Ben Revere or Laynce Nix. Maybe those players, like Howard, will play better when the temperatures rise and the ball travels further and it’s finally real baseball weather. And then, when it gets cold again in October, they can watch the Braves and Nationals in the playoffs for the second straight year.
Contact Kevin Noonan at email@example.com.