By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report
When the Phillies started the season without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley they were hoping to be hovering around the .500 mark or better by the time their two big guns got back.
Now that Howard and Utley are back in the Phillies lineup for the second half of the season, the Phillies will come into the All-Star Break in a deep hole at 13 games under .500 and in last place in the National League East. They have lost 10 of their last 11 games coming into the break including a three-game sweep last weekend by the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s going to take us a while to make that up, if we can,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.”I think we can. I definitely think that we can play a heck of a lot better. If we play the way we can, we can definitely win some games. How many I don’t know, but we’re definitely better than we are right now. That’s how I look at it.”
Can they come back and turn it around?
Conventional wisdom says no and hell no, considering the way they’ve been playing so far this season. They have to play much better than the way they’ve been if they want to come back. It can be done, but things a lot of things have to happen starting with the team itself.
“It is an uphill battle,” said right-fielder Hunter Pence. “When everything’s good, it’s a lot easier than what you’re facing what we’re facing right now. This is tough. We’ve got a lot of tough guys that can handle it and we’re going to have to do that.”
It seems like every night something breaks down with this team. For most of the time that Howard and Utley were out, the offense couldn’t hit and couldn’t score to the point to where it wasn’t until a week from the All-Star that Cliff Lee got his first win of the season.
With Utley in the lineup, the Phillies are 1-9 and 0-2 with both Howard and Utley in the lineup. With both players back from injury, it’s going to take some time for those guys to get their timing down to where they can hit major league pitching on a consistent basis.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Manuel has been the core of his lineup, with the exception of All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz. Players like Shane Victorino, Placido Jimmy Rollins, and Hunter Pence have been inconsistent at times during the first half of the season. When they’re have been injuries to players like Howard, Utley or anyone else in the last three years, the Phillies found ways to win games.
“Of course, I like to see them do better,” Manuel said. “I’d like to see them hit .300. I want every guy on my team to be the best player in baseball That’s exactly what I want. I think that if you’re hitting .260, .240, .250, I think you’re better than that and also I think that you got to work and you gotta keep grinding it out and improve.”
In their last 93 at bats, the Phillies have just 12 hits (.129) with runners in scoring position. That has to change in the second half of the season even if the Phillies want to contend for a wild-card berth.
Apparently, things are starting to wear on the players as well. Before Sunday’s game, Victorino was scratched before the game. He reportedly came to his locker in the clubhouse visibly despondent over his performance. Manuel said he thought it was best to take him out of the lineup.
“When I talked to him, he was kind of hurting today and he was down because of his performance,” Manuel said. “I saw him sitting beside his locker and walked up to him and talked to him. He was down and he was talking about his hitting, especially from the left side. He’s got a lot on his mind, I guess.”
Victorino’s replacement, Jason Pridie was 2-for-3 with three runs batted in including a home run. Gut feeling says there might be more to Victorino’s situation than meets the eye. Stay tuned.
But by the time, the offense was starting to show some life, the starting pitching would them in a hole or the bullpen couldn’t hold a lead or worse yet, they would give teams extra outs by their poor play in the field.
“I’ve talked to them about three or four times. I’ve pretty much said about everything I can say I think,” Manuel said. “It gets back to how we play. The defense part, the pitching part and the offense part. We have trouble putting it all those together. That’s actually been the story all year long.”
While it has been well-documented that having Howard and Utley on the DL has hurt the team offensively, injuries to starting pitcher Roy Halladay, who could be back by the middle of this month, and the bullpen have been equally as devastating. Right-hander David Herndon is out for the season recovering from Tommy John surgery and Michael Stutes is on the DL after arthroscopic surgery to his right shoulder.
Perhaps the biggest injury of all to the Phillies depleted bullpen has been the loss of Jose Contreras who re-aggravated the elbow he injured last season. The injury came at a time when he was starting to provide some stability to the bullpen.
In his last seven appearances, Contreras had not allowed a run. In his last five and two-thirds innings, he had allowed just one hit. He was beginning to find himself on the mound again. Since Contreras’ injury, the Phillies bullpen with the exception of closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has 18 saves in 20 chances, has been a sinking ship ever since.
“We lost Contreras and we had some guys who weren’t doing the job. That really hurt us,” Manuel said. “Then when Halladay went down, that definitely hurt our starting pitchers. We just haven’t been able to get it done.”
But there’s still hope because while the first-place Washington Nationals have played well, they’re not a lock just yet and there’s still plenty of baseball yet to be played. At the same time, the Phillies can ill afford to fall any further behind
That means that general manager Ruben Amaro will probably working the phones over the next couple of weeks to make some of deal before the July 31st trade deadline. If the Phillies continue their lethargic play, they will be sellers. If they get hot, Amaro will come up with a deal that will put them in contention. Stay tuned.