Stephen A. Smith: Something wrong with those Phillies

Posted: June 15, 2010

By the middle of June, even if you can't pitch, won't hit, and struggle to tie your own shoelaces, you should still have some semblance of an identity. There should be no curiosity as to whether Shane Victorino can be effective at the plate, whether Ryan Howard will ever be worth $125 million, or whether the team can succeed while leadoff man Jimmy Rollins continues his rehabilitation.

Yet here we are two months into the season, fresh off another National League pennant and two straight trips to the World Series, and the Phillies are hanging around like a bunch of vagabonds, struggling to find their way. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, with the season's expiration date approaching more rapidly than anyone appears willing to admit.

Before the Phillies lost yet another series, two-of-three this time to the Red Sox, manager Charlie Manuel spent a few moments lamenting to reporters how this team "never spent time talking about losing . . . didn't talk about it at all," which was his way of saying they are doing it now. Then he actually had the temerity to sound shocked that they were doing it at all.

Never mind that the Phillies enter their latest interleague encounter tonight on the road against the defending World Series champion New York Yankees, the team that beat them for the title last October, having lost nine of their last 14 games. Or that they were outscored by 22-4 in the first two games in Boston. Or that they've exhausted their bullpen because they're struggling to find someone - anyone - in their rotation outside of Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels who can pitch.

Now comes word that these Phillies, with more than a few veterans on the roster, could be psychologically damaged by the doldrums they're experiencing.

"Obviously we're not playing up to our capabilities offensively," Howard told reporters. "We need to get on track."

Duh! Ya think?

It is amazing how transparent, and baffling the Phillies' struggles have been to the rest of the sports world. It simply makes no sense.

For those who haven't been paying attention, during a season when every baseball aficionado predicted it would be the Phillies representing the National League for a third-straight October - either against the Yankees or the Tampa Bay Rays - it's these same Phillies who are mired in third place in the NL East.

The Atlanta Braves have discovered their fountain of youth, along with some pitching. The New York Mets are like a bunch of cockroaches, scurrying around with no-names and managing to win ball games, even with their manager, Jerry Manuel, on the hot seat and pitcher Oliver Perez alienating an entire clubhouse because he won't take his inept stuff down to the minors to improve his game.

The Washington Nationals have even stolen some headlines over the last two weeks, riding the hype and euphoria of a young phenom pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, who exceeded expectations with 14 strikeouts and zero walks in his ML debut vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then they drafted some 17-year-old named Bryce Harper, known for smacking 500-foot home runs. And then, of course, there are the Florida Marlins, who struggle just to remind folks they actually play in the NL East.

Give the Marlins credit for this much, though: They're honest. They're not very good, and they let their fans know it bright and early. That way, the fans don't invest too much monetarily or emotionally, anticipating something that won't happen anytime soon.

The Phillies have made no effort to extend such a courtesy. At least not this year.

Their payroll is near $140 million. So why are they only 16-13 at home this year? How many times will Charlie Manuel reshuffle his lineup, hoping for a spark from someone? And why isn't someone other than Placido Polanco batting better than .300?

Don't expect an answer from Manuel because, judging by all the closed-door meetings this season, he has nary a clue. Manuel is unapologetically lost, it appears. His record says he deserves a pass - for now. But a little luck might have more to do with that than anything else.

There isn't much going on with the Eagles, and we'll wait at least until preseason to start being critical of Kevin Kolb. The 76ers have the No. 2 pick in the draft, so they'll make some news for a second.

The Phillies are on the clock after that, along with all their problems.

Hopefully, they will be fixed by then.

Or else!


Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or ssmith@phillynews.com.

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