Phillies have fallen on hard times
BY rob maaddi June 8, 2012 8:36PM
ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 9-10 - FILE - In this May 22, 2012, file photo, Philadelphia Phillies' Cole Hamels, right, watches from the dugout rail during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals in Philadelphia. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have yet to play a game. Roy Halladay is on the disabled list. Cliff Lee is winless. It's no wonder the Philadelphia Phillies are in last place in June. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
Updated: June 9, 2012 4:21PM
PHILADELPHIA — Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are taking swings in Florida. Roy Halladay isn’t supposed to throw for three weeks. Cliff Lee is winless.
No wonder the Philadelphia Phillies are last in the National League East in June.
The five-time defending division champions began the season with World Series aspirations. Anything less is considered unacceptable in this city. Winning another World Series title has been the goal since the Phillies captured the second crown in franchise history in 2008.
But major injuries to star players and overall inconsistency have plagued the Phillies for the first two-plus months. They had lost a season-worst six consecutive games — all at home — entering an interleague series against the Baltimore Orioles. At 28-31, they were six games behind the first-place Washington Nationals.
‘‘Everything about our team is kind of whacked up,’’ manager Charlie Manuel said. ‘‘I feel like what’s going on wrong, sooner or later, it’s going to be like the stock market and bottom out somewhere. We’ll start working from there. If we’re gonna win anything, we definitely have to get better.’’
The Phillies have regressed each year since they beat the Tampa Bay Rays in five games in the 2008
Series. They lost to the New York Yankees in the 2009 World Series, the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 NL Championship Series and the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 NL Division Series. They led the majors in victories the last two seasons with nothing to show for it.
Missing the playoffs would be the next step backward.
‘‘I can say this: Don’t expect us to be in first place right now,’’ Manuel said. ‘‘I can tell you that. That’s kind of how I look at it. We’re definitely trying our best. I can’t get upset about that. I know our guys are trying. We’re just not getting it done.’’
There are still plenty of games left for the Phillies to turn things around, especially if they get Howard, Utley and Halladay back soon. Considering all the injuries, they’re fortunate to only be six games back.
‘‘When I look at it, we have 103 games to go, so I look at how we played that day instead of did we win or lose,’’ Manuel said. ‘‘Winning games, of course, is the biggest priority for me every day, and I’ll
always feel that way. But at the same time, it’s how we play.’’
How they’re playing is downright ugly, with mental lapses, baserunning blunders, sloppy defense and poor execution of fundamentals.
‘‘It’s gotten bad right now,’’ Manuel said. ‘‘Ain’t nobody going to feel sorry for us, and we’re definitely not going to postpone the game and quit playing. We have to keep playing. That’s how I look at it. If you get knocked down, what do you do? You get up. That’s what we’ve got to do. We have to keep coming at them.’’
Help might be on the way. Howard and Utley just started playing in extended-spring-training games. Howard is recovering from surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon. Utley has chronic knee problems. Without them, the Phillies have struggled mightily on offense.
Despite a respectable .266 team batting average, they’re averaging just 4.1 runs per game. They’ve scored three runs or fewer 26 times.
‘‘We might score some runs one night but then have trouble the next,’’ Manuel said. ‘‘That’s the
inconsistency part. Where we’re at right now, we can say we’ve been there before, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.’’
Manuel has tried various ways to replace Utley and Howard in the middle of the lineup, using 10 players in those two spots in the first 59 games. Leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins began the season batting third, with Hunter Pence in the cleanup spot. Now Pence is batting third and Carlos Ruiz fourth. Ruiz is having a career year, but he has been the Phillies’ No. 8 hitter throughout the long run.
It hasn’t helped that Rollins and other All-Stars aren’t producing the way they used to. Rollins is batting .251. Shane Victorino is hitting .249. Pence is at .266.
The Phillies knew Howard and Utley would be out for a while, but they hoped their superb pitching staff could carry them. With Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels atop the rotation, the Phillies have three aces. But the bullpen has been a problem, except for closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Halladay struggled before landing on the disabled list. Lee hasn’t received any run support and is 0-3 despite a 2.92 ERA. Hamels has been outstanding, though he has lost back-to-back decisions. Hamels is 8-3 with a 2.83 ERA in his free-agent season and stands to earn a very lucrative contract after this season. Perhaps elsewhere.
While Utley and Howard are making slow progress, the news on Halladay is encouraging. He has a strained muscle in his back. That’s not as alarming as a shoulder or an elbow injury. Halladay might return in six to eight weeks.
But will the Phillies still be in the race then?
‘‘I feel like it’s a close division,’’ Halladay said. ‘‘I don’t feel any team has run away with it at this point. I’m going to be optimistic that we’re still right there. I feel like even if we do have a little bit of ground to make up, I feel like we have a lot of guys that are coming back and that we have guys who can overcome that.’’
Lee can’t look that far ahead with a big zero staring at him in the win column. He has been the unluckiest pitcher on the staff. He couldn’t even get a victory when he tossed 10 scoreless innings at San Francisco in April.
‘‘I’m not really frustrated; I’m not,’’ Lee said. ‘‘All I can do is throw pitches. I don’t set goals that I’ve got to have this many wins or whatever. I just want to put as many zeros as I can on the scoreboard, go deep, throw strikes, don’t walk guys, give the team a chance to win. That’s all I can do, and that’s what I’m going to try to continue to do.’’
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the Phillies’ struggles is their record at home. They are 12-19 at Citizens Bank Park, where sellout crowds have turned out for the last 251 games.
‘‘Being a visitor over the years, you know what it’s been like to come in here,’’ infielder Ty Wigginton said. ‘‘You want teams to fear coming in here. Unless we start playing better, they’re not going to.’’
Maybe they don’t already.
‘‘I thought we lost that edge quite a while ago, if you want to know the truth,’’ Manuel said. ‘‘We don’t scare nobody. We used to have a swagger. We used to be kind of cocky in a real good way. And teams used to definitely fear us. I definitely don’t see that fear no more.
Nobody backs down from us. Matter of fact, they come right at us. They take it right to us.’’
And the Phillies don’t fight back.