Brown not cure for Ibanez’ woes

Domonic Brown was activated from the disabled list and optioned to triple-A Lehigh Valley Sunday. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Domonic Brown was activated from the disabled list and optioned to triple-A Lehigh Valley Sunday. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 02, 2011

This was the news flash. Attention Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea: Domonic Brown’s rehab at Class A Clearwater has ended. The Phillies No. 1 prospect, who had surgery during spring training after fracturing the hamate hook in his right wrist, has been activated and will report to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. passed the info along as part of a lengthier update on the Phillies many injuries yesterday afternoon. It was a nice, tidy, self-contained note that demanded no embellishment.

Except that most developments in baseball don't stand alone. They are more like jig saw puzzle pieces in a box, part of a bigger picture.

That truism came into clearer focus several hours later when leftfielder Raul Ibanez once again ended his night's work without managing to get a hit. For those who are paying attention - and it seems like everybody is these days - he's now gone 34 straight at bats without one.

His first time up he hit the ball sharply, but Mets centerfielder Scott Hairston made the catch. His second time up he got under the ball just a little, flying out to deep center.

His final two at bats were particularly frustrating. With runners on first and second and the Phillies down by one in the seventh, he struck out on a checked swing. With the bases loaded and two out in the eighth with the score now tied, he grounded into an inning-ending force play. After that he came out of the game as part of a double-switch.

To put his woes in perspective, the record for most consecutive hitless at bats in the big leagues is 46 by Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Bill Bergen in 1909, according to baseball-reference.com.

This would be a worry under any circumstances, but it's getting additional scrutiny for a couple reasons. One is that the Phillies offense has slipped back into silent mode, mustering just one double and six lonely singles in a 14-inning, 2-1 loss to the Mets at Citizens Bank Park last night.

The other is the news about Brown and it didn't take long for the dots to be connected. If he comes out smokin' for the IronPigs, the line of questioning went, how long will the Phillies wait before bringing him up? The unspoken assumption was that he would go to left, either every day or at least in a platoon with John Mayberry Jr.

Many, many hours later manager Charlie Manuel sat at the podium and tried to make sense of it all. He talked about how the Phillies had chances to score and he's right. They left 11 runners on base and went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

So, clearly, there's more than one concern here. But Ibanez' slump is so glaring that it's commanding most of the attention.

Managers make hundreds of decisions on any given gameday, but none is more vexing than attempting to figure out when to pull the plug on a respected, once-productive veteran. There's a sweet spot somewhere between panic and too much patience but it can be maddeningly elusive to pin down.

Outsiders tend to have short-term memory. And that's fine. The guy who actually makes out the lineup has to take a lot of factors in account, a process that would make sausage-making look pretty.

Has the hitter in question been swinging the bat well without results to show for it? What are the options? Do they really give the team a better chance to win? Track record has to be weighted in favor of the incumbent. And what about the intangibles? If the veteran is benched will the manager lose him for the rest of the year? And while most teams will deny that contract status plays a part in the equation, well, of course it does. Ibanez is making $11.5 million in the final season of his original

Manuel has remained publicly supportive of Ibanez, who turns 39 next month. When asked if he's thinking about making a change, he likes to point out that he was fielding the same queries early last season and that Ibanez ended up hitting .309 with 9 homers and 44 RBI after the break.

Now, it's easy to be patient when your team just set a franchise record for wins in April. But, as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. And while Manuel's words on the subject have been soothing and reassuring, the reality is that four of the last five times a lefthander has started against the Phillies, Ibanez hasn't been in the starting lineup.

The Phillies are off today. Expect the manager to give a lot of thought to his next move. One option would be to bench Ibanez for two or three straight games, giving him a chance to spend extra time in the batting cage, much like he used to do with Pat Burrell.

When asked about how long Brown will need to get ready, both Manuel and Amaro have been studiously noncommittal. He just needs to play, they say.

And that's the only possible response. The public perception of Brown has swung wildly in the last 12 months, from bring-him-up-right-now! when he was excelling at Double-A Reading and with the IronPigs last season to omigosh-what's-wrong? when he scuffled in winter ball and early and spring training. Now his poll numbers are way up again after a couple good games against Class A pitching.

The funny thing is that Brown is exactly what he was a year ago: An uncommonly talented 23-year-old who has yet to prove himself at the big league level.

The confluence of Ibanez' troubles - he's also in a 4-for-53 (.075) tailspin - and Brown's return to active status just one step away from the big leagues could mean that the Phillies will face a hard choice between the two outfielders at some point later this season.

But that time isn't now. The Phillies aren't looking at Domonic Brown as some sort of savior, and neither should anybody else.

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Send email to hagenp@phillynews.com

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