John Smallwood: Slow start a sign of dismay for Phillies?

Ryan Howard takes off his batting gloves after grounding out in the seventh inning of Phillies' loss.
Ryan Howard takes off his batting gloves after grounding out in the seventh inning of Phillies' loss.
Posted: April 08, 2009

CONSIDERING the length of the major league baseball season, I don't know what constitutes a start, much less how to determine the difference between a good one and a bad one.

I do know that with 160 games remaining, it wouldn't matter if the Phillies were 2-0, 1-1 or 0-2, which is what they are after last night's 4-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

Playoff races usually don't get interesting until the sweltering "dog days" of July and August and aren't decided until September, so it's hard to get worked up over a game played on a 40-degree night.

Unless a team jumps out to a ridiculous lead or falls into an incredible hole, you don't even need to pay attention to the standings until June.

Heck, in 2005, the Houston Astros had a 15-30 record on May 24 and ended up playing in the World Series.

And despite the Phillies' recent notorious reputation for slow starts - they are 0-2 for the fourth straight year - they usually manage to be within a few games of a playoff spot in September.

As the Phillies proved by running down the New York Mets for the last two National League East titles, it's better to be good late than early.

That's not to say the first 50 or 60 games should be ignored. You just have to keep things in perspective and proper context.

The first third of the season is about identifying trends, seeing whether issues that plagued a team the previous season are resurfacing, and noting whether concerns that were raised coming into the season are starting to play out.

With that in mind, the Phillies' first two games have already put out a few story lines to follow.

The big talk during spring training was about which pitcher would win the job as the Phillies' fifth starter.

I always thought more concern should have been directed to spots higher in the rotation. The biggest questions about the Phillies rotation revolved around the mind of Brett Myers and the body of 46-year-old Jamie Moyer.

On one level, it wasn't that big of a deal that Myers got torched for three home runs in the first two innings of Sunday night's season-opening 4-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

But given Myers' history of surrendering longballs in the early innings, it was disturbing that three of his early pitches were deposited out of Citizen Bank Park.

And if we're being honest, Myers, particularly last season, hasn't shown the mental resiliency to keep these things from carrying into the next game.

To be fair, the way Myers handled what had to be an extremely uncomfortable postgame situation was a nice sign of maturation.

Still, history is history, and how Myers performs in his next four or five starts is something to pay attention to. The Phillies can't afford to have Myers start back down the path that led to him being sent to Triple A last season to get his head together.

Considering that the last time we saw Moyer pitch, he was gritting out an inspiring effort against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the World Series, there is no reason to think he won't still be effective at 46.

Well, nothing, except that Father Time is the only undefeated performer in professional sport. Ultimately, he will always win the race. It's just a matter of how long it takes to run down the opposition.

And that's where we are with Moyer. Sooner or later, he will lose this race. At some point, his guile, experience and determination will be unable to mask the fact that age has deteriorated his physical skills to the point that he can no longer perform at this level.

Baseball history is not exactly littered with guys who were at the top of their game in their fourth decade of life.

Fair or not, you can't help but watch the clock on Moyer. You don't know for sure when the alarm will to ring, but you also can't help but wonder whether it will happen on the next pitch.

Moyer didn't necessarily look old when Kelly Johnson blasted his first pitch of the season over the rightfield wall. And he didn't look shot when Chipper Jones did the same thing to his first pitch of the fifth inning.

Moyer's opening-game line of five innings, eight hits, four earned runs, two walks and two strikeouts was considerably better than the one the New York Yankees' $161 million man, CC Sabathia, put up in his disastrous debut against Baltimore.

Still, the issue of Moyer's age won't simply fade away. Every bad start will make you wonder whether this the beginning of the end.

In the view of a 162-game season, it's no big deal that the Phillies' starting pitchers are 0-2 with a 6.55 earned run average, but there were questions about Myers and Moyer coming into the year.

Now, there are things to watch for over their next few starts - just to make sure the questions don't become worrisome trends. *

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