Phillies' offensive uncertainty has Charlie grumbling

Shane Victorino splits his bat during Phillies' 8-1 loss to the Yankees. The Phils managed just six hits.
Shane Victorino splits his bat during Phillies' 8-1 loss to the Yankees. The Phils managed just six hits.
Posted: March 21, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Charlie Manuel trudged through the clubhouse, down a hall, into the conference room that serves as the setting for his postgame postmortems at Bright House Field.

Normally, he ambles easily through the room, smiling and joking. This time, he bulled straight ahead with a sort of grim determination. Before he settled into his seat, he grumbled aloud to nobody in particular, "Someone's gotta want to make the team. Someone's gotta hit. Go to sleep, then you might sleep somewhere else."

Alrighty, then . . .

It's been noted from the moment he was hired six seasons ago that Manuel's strength as a manager is the fact he has the ability to remain outwardly imperturbable, to project an aura that he doesn't have a worry in the world even when the good ship Phillies is tempest-tossed and waves are crashing over the decks.

Yesterday, he seemed a little seasick.

Granted, this all happened in the aftermath of an 8-1 loss to the Yankees during which his team managed just six hits. Granted, there seems to come a point each spring when he gets a little cranky about the state of his offense.

This felt a little different, though. Never before has he had to deal with trying to replace both the third and fifth hitters in his lineup. And never before, frankly, have the expectations for this team been so high.

When he walks from the leftfield corner to the dugout about a half-hour before the first pitch at home, he gets a standing ovation. After a game in Bradenton recently, fans lined up behind a chain-link fence that separated them from the team bus and chanted his name. "Char-lie! Char-lie! Char-lie!"

On a team filled with All-Stars and potential future Hall of Famers, he might be as close to a rock star as this organization has. And as intoxicating as that can be, he's wise enough to understand just how quickly adulation can turn to animus if those high-profile players don't produce.

So, as the April 1 season opener against the Houston Astros is approaching with the speed of the hare while Chase Utley's improvement from patellar tendinitis in his right knee has been tortoise-slow, with the black hole in rightfield no closer to being filled than it was when they first convened in their palmy, balmy Pinellas County encampment, yeah, it's probably not surprising that Uncle Chuck seems a little out of sorts.

It's always dangerous to try to read between the lines, to try to divine deeper meaning from a string of words beyond what was literally said. But at least twice yesterday Manuel was asked one thing and appeared to answer something else, which just may have provided a glimpse into his inner thinking.

When an inquiring mind asked how concerned he was about his offense, it triggered a monologue that seemed to talk about whether he thought the solutions were already on the roster or the Phillies needed to make a trade to offset either the loss of Utley or Jayson Werth's departure via free agency.

"That's what we've got and that's what I've always gone on. I've always played what we have and I always will and I'm hoping somebody will come up and give us some production," he said.

Then, more urgently.

"There's a big price you pay to win," he said. "There's a price to play in the major leagues every day . . . It takes a very, very, very, very, very special player to play in the big leagues. And there are a lot of second-division teams and they don't have special everyday players. And to win it takes even more. Winning is hard. There's nothing easy about winning.

"I don't know what other people think. I'll tell you what I think. You just don't go and give away a position. I've been in the game too long, I had to work too hard to get to the big leagues, had to work too hard to stay to think that way. I think you've got to do something to be a big-league player, you know? That's what I think."

A query about the seeming abundance of options at second and third elicited a response about the two players who are competing for time in rightfield.

"We've got some guys who have some experience. Guys who've played for other teams. Some of those guys like Ben [Francisco] and John [Mayberry Jr.] have been on our club. And this is still a chance for them," he said. "I can't look at what's going to happen down the road or something like that . . . What did we say our goal was? To get to the World Series. We've got to put out the best team we possibly can to get there."

No team has an All-Star at every position. And the Phillies, with their gold-plated rotation, have to like their chances just about every night. Manuel is a hitting guy right down to his marrow, though. And he isn't bothering to hide his anxiety about the current state of his favorite part of the game.

Send email to hagenp@phillynews.com

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