By Chris Murray
For the Sunday Sun and Chris Murray Report
About three hours before Chase Utley made his 2012 debut, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Phillies second baseman jump started the offense in Wednesday’s night game. While it takes awhile for a player to be 100 percent after an injury, Manuel said Utley’s work ethic might accelerate that process.
“It might take him a little while, but then again or he might come out tonight and start off good,” Manuel said. “I hope he starts off good, I’m pulling for him everyday. He can do that.”
Manuel turned out to be prophetic.
In his first at-bat of the season, Utley sent the sellout crowd at Citizen’s Bank Park into a frenzy when hit a solo-home run to give the Phillies a short-lived 1-0 lead. For the game, Utley was 3-for-5.
Too bad Utley can’t pitch.The Pirates scored eight runs in the first five innings en route to an 11-7 victory in front of a disappointed crowd of 44,057, ruining what was an outstanding evening for the Phillies second baseman.
“It was nice to hit the ball hard in my first at-bat and contribute early on,” Utley said. “I was excited to be out there. It’s been a long road to get to this point and I have a lot of emotions and a lot of adrenalin and the crowd really helped out.”
Even though the Phillies scored seven runs on 10 hits, the pitching-both starting and relief simply let them down. After taking a 2-0 lead in the first inning on home runs by Utley and Carlos Ruiz, starting pitcher Raul Valdes gave up a three-run homer to Pittsburgh Jose Tabata.
“When that kid hit the three-run homer in the second inning,that definitely took some starch out of us for a while, but we hung in there and battled all night,” Manuel said.
After Valdes was lifted in the second inning, reliever Joe Savery wasn’t any better. He got knocked around for five runs on five hits in two and two-thirds innings of work. For his troubles, Savery was optioned back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Meanwhile, relievers Michael Schwimer and Jake Diekman kept the Pirates off the board during the middle innings. Schwimer allowed four hits, struck out , but did not give up a run in an inning and a third. Diekman allowed no walks in his one inning of work.
The Phillies mounted a comeback by scoring two runs in the sixth on an RBI double by Hunter Pence and an RBI single by Shane Victorino. In the seventh, Phillies scored three runs to close the gap to 8-7 on RBI singles by Jimmy Rollins, Juan Pierre and Ruiz.
Just when it looked like the Phillies were going to mount a dramatic comeback, the bullpen let them down again. This time Chad Qualls gave up three runs including a two-run shot to Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
“We were a hit away and sometimes that’s what happens,” Manuel said. “Sometimes winning and losing can be a small thing where you can correct some things. But at the same time, too, that’s the moment. They say baseball is a moment and when you live in the moment, you get that hit, you make that play and you pitch. When a team out plays you, you’re gonna get beat.”
Finding a solution to the Phillies bullpen woes has been even worse than having to solve the team’s offensive problems. The offense has done its share in recent games, but finding consistency in the bullpen is a lot more complicated.
The trades for big name players Hunter Pence and Roy Oswalt has depleted the Phillies farm system of strong arms and going outside the organization for better arms will probably cost the Phillies something they don’t want to give up, namely one of their big-time players.
“If there’s a way that we can get better in our bullpen and stuff like that, I know we’re going to do it,” Manuel said. “It’s tough to make a deal right now because people don’t want to give up pitching. You can ask any organization, pitching is hard to get. If you want to trade for pitching, you’re going to pay a premium price for it. We’re going to improve our bullpen, but we’ve also got to get Roy Halladay back.”