Hitters needed for Charlie Manuel's experiment

Phillies' Pete Orr gets force at second on Braves' Tim Hudson.
Phillies' Pete Orr gets force at second on Braves' Tim Hudson. (Associated Press)
Posted: May 16, 2011

ATLANTA - Once upon a time, Jim Thome was the Phillies starting first baseman. He appeared to be cemented into that spot for the foreseeable future because of his production and the fact that he was a great teammate. Oh, yeah, and because he was guaranteed a lot of money for a lot of years.

Then he got hurt, Ryan Howard got his chance and Thome was traded.

Jayson Werth was almost an afterthought when he first came to the Phillies. He played well enough to convince the Phillies to platoon him with Geoff Jenkins going into the 2008 season. Before the season was over, Werth had won the spot outright and Jenkins was released the following spring despite having another year on his deal.

Shane Victorino saw his opening and took advantage of it when Bobby Abreu was traded.

Heck, Wilson Valdez was the everyday second baseman going into this season. Pete Orr has started 10 of the last 16 games.

The Phillies offense continued its uphill climb yesterday, managing just four hits in a 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. In 39 games this season they have scored three or fewer 20 times, nearly 50 percent.

"We're gonna find some hitting. We'll get somebody," Charlie Manuel promised afterward. "We'll find people. We'll gawdamn look until we find somebody. Seriously. That's how I look at it. We'll keep experimenting until we get people."

From the outside, the quick hook is always going to be the No. 1 option. Just look at the NFL, where the second-string quarterback is usually the most popular player in town and the fans tend to believe the head coach is an idiot after every loss and should be fired if his team happens to drop a couple in a row.

Because baseball plays so many games, patience is considered a virtue. That's why when Manuel announced at the end of the exhibition season that Ben Francisco would be the everyday rightfielder, he also vowed plenty of time to show what he had. "He's going to get his chance to play a lot. He's going to get what I call a bona-fide chance," the Phillies manager said at the time.

Now, of course, the question becomes how a bona-fide chance is defined. The Phillies will pass the quarter pole of the season tomorrow night in St. Louis. Francisco is hitting .222. He has 149 plate appearances.

He also didn't start yesterday. John Mayberry Jr. did, for the first time in 10 days. The Phillies had 10 baserunners for the whole. Mayberry was three of them on a pair of walks and a homer that drove in the only runs his team scored.

Manuel is clearly frustrated with his lineup. He talks about getting Chase Utley back and, while that will help, it doesn't solve the problem if the rest of the hitters continue to have weak, unfocused at-bats.

He did not say yesterday that he's about to change course in rightfield. But he did hint that Mayberry could start finding his name in the lineup card more often.

"He played good today. He stole a bag. He hit a homer. [Walked twice.] Made a helluva catch in rightfield," Manuel said. "I've always had in my mind to get him some playing time. The better he does, the more playing time he'll get. That's what happened with Werth and Howard and Victorino. That's how they became regulars for us. You play good enough, you can win a job. You can move anybody."

Manuel also has few options at the moment, at least until Domonic Brown proves he is healthy again and earns a promotion from Triple A Lehigh Valley. Ross Gload is a possibility but is inexperienced in the outfield, and Rule 5 draft pick Michael Martinez, who was batting .190 going into his start in center yesterday in place of the injured Victorino.

The Phillies have now played the Braves nine times this season, half the annual ration against the division opponent most prognosticators picked to have the best chance of wresting the division title away from the defending champions. Atlanta holds a 5-4 edge so far. Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who sat out yesterday with a sore right knee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he thinks they've proved something.

"In a seven-game series against them in October, I'll take my guys over their guys. Meaning no disrespect," he said on Saturday. "I have no doubt in my mind we're as good a ballclub as the Phillies."

Well, a lot can change between now and October. The Phillies should be better assuming Utley can come back and if Brown is ready to contribute, that could be a bonus, too. The Braves believe Jason Heyward (.220 and dealing with shoulder soreness) and Dan Uggla (.196 before having a breakout game yesterday) will turn themselves around.

In the meantime, Manuel will try to find the proper balance between giving players enough rope and forfeiting winnable games now. And it sure sounds like that means he's ready to start taking a longer look at Mayberry.

Send email to hagenp@phillynews.com

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