Phil Sheridan: Games in April count

Posted: April 08, 2009

It was just one game, the Phillies reminded us all after a lackluster performance in their opening-night loss. Indeed, they were so unconcerned about losing the opener, they delivered a nearly identical performance last night.

The Season After began with great fanfare and enthusiasm among Philadelphia fans. One hopes the Phillies will join the party soon. It's kind of a drag without them.

Is it too soon to panic? The question itself is absurd. There are plenty of things in this life to worry about before you get around to the fortunes of the local baseball squad. Is it too soon to raise questions about this team's ability to contend after its championship season? It is. It's way too early.

But that doesn't mean these Phillies don't make you feel like pulling your own hair out at times. That doesn't mean they weren't dreadful in their first two games of 2009.

Sure, they have a shiny gold trophy and, as of this afternoon, gaudy gold rings to point to whenever a discouraging word is uttered. Sure, they overcame a mediocre start last season, ran down the choking New York Mets and won their second division title in a row.

All true.

But that doesn't change the fact that nearly 90,000 paying customers showed up on two April nights and watched the Phillies flail at the offerings of the Atlanta Braves' pitching staff. That doesn't mean it isn't frustrating when the other pitchers are ahead of the Phillies' hitters, but the other hitters are mysteriously way ahead of the Phillies' pitchers.

"Apparently, we weren't hitting the ball into the same jet stream as they were," Ryan Howard said.

Can the Phillies overcome a poor start? Sure they can. The real question is why they insist on getting off to one year after year after year.

They proved in October they were the best team in Major League Baseball. So why can't the best team in Major League Baseball come out and play well when its fans are psyched and eager as never before to get behind the home team?

Ultimately, though, the Phillies make things harder on the Phillies.

Last year, they got off to a 4-6 start and went on to win the World Series. The year before, they got off to a 2-8 start and went on to win the National League East title.

So a slow start is no big deal, right? Except the Phillies started 4-6 the season before and finished three games out of the wild-card spot. In '05, they went 4-6 in the first 10 and finished one game out of the wild-card spot. The year before that, they started the season 4-6 and were well out of both the divisional and wild-card races.

So you put the World Series title on one side of the scale and the missed postseasons on the other. The lesson seems pretty clear. These games in April can keep you from playing those games in October. It is a lesson these Phillies seem almost scornful about learning.

You could argue that the Phillies have gotten better in recent years and are capable of overcoming poor starts, maybe even thrive on the self-inflicted adversity. Granting that, it's also true they needed 162 games to pass the Mets in 2007 and 161 to pass them last year. As well as the Phillies played down the stretch both seasons, they also needed the Mets to fall apart in historic fashion.

Maybe that will happen again in 2009. Maybe the Braves and Marlins and Nationals will cheerfully stumble along and allow the Phillies to have their way. It happened in '07 and '08, so maybe it will happen again.

Seems like a sucker's bet to count on it, though, which is why a good start to the Season After would have been such a powerful statement. One of the reasons it is so hard to repeat as champions is that things don't go as you plan or as you hope, not all that often. The 124 seasons of Phillies baseball that didn't end with a title should have driven that point home by now.

If you're disappointed by the Phillies' performances in their first two games, that doesn't show a lack of faith in the defending champions. In fact, it's the other way around. The more you believe in this team, the more disappointing these games have been to watch.

One run in 18 innings? First-inning runs yielded by both starters? Eleven men left on base last night?

This is a terrific baseball team that gave Philadelphia one of its great sports memories of all time just over five months ago. A couple of stinkers doesn't change that. The Phillies are really good. It doesn't make you negative or ungrateful to want to see them play that way.


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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