Phil Sheridan | Team's stumbling start is not bosses' fault

Posted: April 12, 2007

NEW YORK - The key to the Punxsutawney Phillies' snapping out of their Groundhog Day-style endless loop turns out to be breathtakingly simple.

Play better.

It may be more satisfying for fans and columnists, bloggers and talk-show callers to blame the annual season-opening stumble on general manager Pat Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel. That's understandable. Those are easy targets, and it's not like there isn't plenty to criticize them about.

Gillick did too little in the off-season to fix the bullpen. Some of Manuel's moves, whether they were sound or not going into the situation, have contributed to losses.

All true. All pretty much beside the point right now.

This is the team the Phillies have. There are enough pitchers and hitters here to compete in the National League. The core of the roster did just that last season. So why is it everyone else's fault when these players come out tight and lose six of their first seven games?

(That's six of eight after last night's gift from the New York Mets: .250 or bust, bay-bee!)

"When everybody gets hot, this offense will be like clockwork," third baseman Wes Helms said. "We know it's coming. We just have to stop pressing. We can't all be heroes every night."

If this turns into another lost summer in Punxsutawney, shortstop Jimmy Rollins will have a tough time living down his "team to beat" comments from the off-season. But you know what? The team's current record aside, Rollins was still right to pump some confidence into the atmosphere in the clubhouse.

Joe Namath became a legend for guaranteeing a Super Bowl upset of the Baltimore Colts. But would it have been Namath's fault if the Jets' defense gave up 48 points in that game?

Face-to-face with the rival Mets on Monday, the Phillies broke out the ugly-ball. Abraham Nuñez collides with Ryan Howard to allow a routine pop-up to fall. Rollins boots a grounder to contribute to a big inning. The team plays as if it's just waiting for the bullpen to burst into flames.

It's hard to be the team to beat when you keep beating yourself. If the Phillies want to snap out of this, that nonsense has to stop.

Every team has flaws. The Mets won the National League East last year by patching a rotation together at times (13 pitchers started games) and in spite of injuries that strained their bullpen. Worried about your setup man? Score an extra run or two. It's pretty simple.

Remember, the Phillies' big emphasis this spring was on fundamentals and smart baseball. Gillick brought in coach Jimy Williams to run a disciplined, comprehensive camp. He hired Davey Lopes to work on the running.

So when the Phillies are colliding with each other in the field, when players are getting thrown out trying to steal third base with Howard at the plate in a key situation, the majority of the blame must be on the players. When pitchers who have performed well in the past come out and blow hard-earned leads, that is on the pitchers.

Last night, after a day off to hang out with David Letterman (Howard) and browse rare-coin dealers (Manuel), the Phillies reconvened at Shea Stadium. Mets starter Oliver Perez handed the Phillies the game - theirs to lose, that is - with a horrible third inning. After Chase Utley's two-out single, Perez walked four consecutive batters and hit the fifth. Those three runs were produced by exactly one swing of the bat.

Phillies starter Adam Eaton looked for all the world as if he were about to give it back. He loaded the bases in the fourth, but Utley bailed him out with a nifty backhand throw to start a double play.

"That was a huge play," Manuel said. "Goes to show you we can play fundamentally sound baseball."

In the sixth, Eaton struck out Carlos Beltran and David Wright as part of a 1-2-3 inning. Meanwhile, the Phillies added to the gift from Perez with a couple of runs. Rollins tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly. Aaron Rowand cranked an RBI double in the seventh.

Score a few runs, pitch out of jams, play some defense, commit no errors.


"That was a perfectly played baseball game," Helms said. "We capitalized on their mistakes tonight."

There is a lot of time for the Phillies to bust out of Punxsutawney and prove they are the team Rollins said they could be. There are 154 games left on the schedule, and the Phillies will have to play them all.

Might as well go ahead and try playing them well.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or

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