Phil Sheridan | Sometimes, believing is hard

Posted: April 14, 2007

Stick around long enough and you'll see everything.

The Phillies limped home from Shea Stadium with a 2-7 record, so naturally a ballpark-record total of 8,900-plus fans walked up and bought tickets for a game played with temperatures in the 40s.

The sellout crowd later proved that absence really does make the heart grow, if not fonder, then at least less hostile, by giving Pat Burrell something very much like a standing ovation before a pinch-hitting appearance in the seventh inning.

Maybe it wasn't absence. Maybe it was watching replacement leftfielder Jayson Werth strike out three times on Burrell's night off.

Or maybe the ovation was just a prank played by those crazy kids on College Night.

Stick around long enough and the Phillies will score six runs against Houston Astros righthander Roy Oswalt - and lose anyway.

Stick around long enough and the Phillies will show you every possible way to lose a baseball game.

This one was especially disheartening for a team desperately clawing for a grip at the edge of the abyss. As they did in their last win, Wednesday night at Shea, the Phillies got a little bit of a gift inning. Oswalt walked three batters and gave up three hits, only one of which got out of the infield, to spot the Phillies a three-run lead.

On a night their ace-on-paper, Brett Myers, was pitching, that should have gone a long way toward a much-needed victory.

But no. Myers, who flamed out in his previous start in Florida, gave up home runs to Carlos Lee in back-to-back innings. The second was a grand slam, and Oswalt's gift was wasted.

"It's like I'm pitching scared," a still-raw Myers said after the game. "It's like I'm scared of contact. That's not how I pitch. I'm ticked off at myself for falling into that funk. I stink right now. That's the bottom line."

It's hard to be any harder on Myers than he was on himself.

Just to make matters worse, erstwhile starter and ersatz reliever Jon Lieber strolled in and gave up a three-run bomb to Morgan Ensberg. If there was any doubt how Lieber felt about his exile to the bullpen, it disappeared over the left-field fence with that baseball.

The Ensberg homer seemed like overkill at the time, but it became important as the Phillies added three runs off Oswalt. They did it without an extra-base hit, so it's not as if they knocked Oswalt around. They probably got more runs than they deserved, but they definitely got enough runs to win.

It takes a village to go 2-8.

"When the effort is there," Manuel said, "it's hard to go in and chew their [butts]. That's not how it's done."

Before the game, Manuel was asked about the various historical precedents that suggest the Phillies' awful start pretty much eliminates them from the postseason. The manager shrugged. There are 152 games left on the schedule. What's he supposed to do? Make a concession speech?

"We've got the team to get back in this," Manuel said. "I believe that."

The reasons to believe are the same reasons there was optimism about this team in the first place. A lineup that was so productive last season should, like a car refusing to turn over on a cold morning, eventually sputter to life. The starting rotation still has every chance to be good enough.

Consider these Astros. Two years ago, they got off to a terrible start, got their manager fired, then went to the World Series. The key was a rotation that included Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Over the course of a long season, quality pitching will show itself.

Cole Hamels, who pitches today, has been fine. Jamie Moyer has been fine. After a worrisome first start that screamed "Kevin Millwood" and "Andy Ashby," Adam Eaton showed a little heart Wednesday against the Mets. If Freddy Garcia, scheduled to start tomorrow, is healthy and starts 30 games, this little early-season blip will be forgotten by August.

That's the upside point of view. Given that we're talking about the Phillies, it seems more likely that Eaton will be inconsistent, Garcia will remain a worry all season, some injury will force Lieber back into the rotation, the bullpen will be even thinner, and so on.

It will take a lot of things to go very right for these Phillies to salvage the season after this 2-8 start. The Groundhog Day rule says the Punxsutawney Phils will rally in May, stink it up in June, then fall just a little bit short in September.

Last night's walk-up attendance says the fans want to believe.

These Phillies have made that incredibly difficult.

Stick around long enough and you'll see everything - except what you were hoping to see.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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