It's too early for Phillies to worry about Ibanez, isn't it?

YONG KIM / Staff photographer
YONG KIM / Staff photographer
Posted: April 09, 2010

WASHINGTON - It's just three games, and that's the truth.

But it's also three games plus spring training, and that's the truth, too.

Or, if you prefer, it's three games and spring training and the second half of the 2009 season. True, all true.

So you can shrug off the fact that leftfielder Rauuuuul Ibanez is batting .091 after the Phillies came up short in their attempt to complete a sweep at Nationals Park. And that certainly is the most traditional approach.

Or you can bundle that with his .130 Grapefruit League average and wonder if that queasy feeling has something to do with the burrito platter you had for dinner.

Or you can buy the whole tripleplay package, factoring in the fact that Ibanez went .232-12-33 after the All-Star break last season while playing through a serious abdominal injury that required postseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. Caution: This approach has been known to result in panic.

The Phillies lost by a run yesterday, 6-5. There were plenty of reasons why. No one person was responsible. But Ibanez came up three times with runners in scoring position, including the ninth inning, and didn't knock any of them in. This is the whole truth and nothing but.

"I'm definitely frustrated but at the same time I have to maintain belief," he said softly. "I know that it is only 3 days. At the same time, I'm pretty pissed off about it. I'm seeing the ball well. I can get the barrel there but I'm not producing line drives right now. And that's what I try to do, produce line drives. I'll get it. I'll get it."

Ibanez, who turns 38 in June, said there's no physical reason for his lack of productivity. He mentioned his frustration several times. As in: "You've got to try to keep your perspective. There are a lot of games left. But, yeah, it's frustrating."

Charlie Manuel eventually will have to decide how much rope to give Ibanez, when to consider dropping him in the order, when to sit him down for a spell. The Phillies manager, as always, was publicly supportive.

"It's three games," he said. "We've got to keep running him out there. I don't want him to start digging a big hole for himself. In situations like he was hitting in today, he expects to contribute just like everybody else.

"I'm not worried right now. I think he definitely deserves more time to see if he can get it going."

It may have been the listener's imagination but Manuel seemed to put a little extra oomph on "right now."

Some of it, certainly, will have to do with whether or not the Phillies are winning. They took the first two from the Nationals even though Ibanez managed just one weak single in those games.

Manuel's natural inclination is to stick with veterans with track records as long as he can. And he will most likely follow that pattern with Ibanez, unless too many winnable games get away and his hand is forced.

If, that is to say, there are too many games like yesterday.

The Phillies were down by a run going into the ninth, but Nationals closer Matt Capps found himself in trouble almost immediately. Washington's outfield was in a no-doubles defense, playing deep to keep line drives from getting into the gap for extra bases.

Chase Utley led off with a drive to left-center and hustled his way into second even though the ball was cut off before it got to the warning track. Ryan Howard was walked intentionally, bringing Jayson Werth to the plate.

Werth scalded a line drive to center. Off the bat, it looked as though he had at least tied the game. But Nationals centerfielder Nyjer Morgan glided back and made the catch easily because Washington was still in its no-doubles alignment.

That was a curious decision. Playing the outfield deep increased the possibility that a game-tying single would fall in front of one of the outfielders. But it worked, and Werth was penalized for hitting the ball too hard.

Utley tagged up and moved to third on the play. That brought up Ibanez. A hit, even a sacrifice fly, could have been viewed as a spark that would help turn him around. Instead, he popped out to shallow left. Capps retired Shane Victorino and the Phillies had lost for the first time this season.

"I was looking to hit a ball hard," Ibanez said. "Not to try to hit the fly ball. We could have won this game and we didn't. But tomorrow's a new day and we've got to get back out there."

The Phillies are a much better team if he's anywhere near the player he was the first half of last season. That's one good reason why they'll probably stick to the approach that it's still early. At least until they decide it's too late.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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