Phillies fans: You can worry but it will be OK

Chase Utley joins hitting coach Greg Gross in dugout Sunday.
Chase Utley joins hitting coach Greg Gross in dugout Sunday. (RON CORTES / Staff photographer)
Posted: May 25, 2011

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell writes a weekly sports column for the Daily News from a fan's perspective. His column appears Wednesdays.

AS WE HEAD TO Memorial Day weekend, the city is a bubbling cauldron of fear and anxiety, of angst and impatience. Our beloved fightin' Phils, who we all thought would win 100 games, are having serious trouble scoring runs, and the teams in the NL East have not yet conceded the division title to us. Sports writers and TV and radio commentators are counseling us to be patient, not to fret, for, after all, we still have the best record in the National League, and Chase Utley is back!

That advice is sound and reasoned, but it ignores the psychological makeup of Philadelphia and Philly sports fans. We are born pessimists and no matter what the evidence is, we choose to ignore it and worry. So what if we just took two out of three from the defending AL champs - we scored only five runs in three games. So what if we have the best record in the NL - before Monday night's explosion against the Reds, we had gone nine straight games without scoring more than three runs and scored three or fewer runs in 27 of their first 47 games.

We are never confident. We are never secure. This stems from two causes. First, we Philadelphians have an inferiority complex. Trapped between New York, the financial capital of the world, and Washington, the political capital of the world, we don't really believe we are first rate, despite evidence to the contrary. The great Bernie Watson said it best when describing our attitude in 1992 about our soon-to-be-opened Convention Center. He said, "most Philadelphians believe that we won't build it on time and on budget, and even if we do, it will be ugly!" Let the record show that the Convention Center was built on time and under budget, and is strikingly beautiful.

Second, we fret and worry so much, because we care so deeply - so much more than fans in other cities. In Atlanta, Seattle, Miami or Washington, their teams' plight is hardly more important than the weather or traffic conditions. For us, it's all about life-and-death struggles. I prefer our way of thinking about sports. In its blockbuster hit "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum sang, "and I'd rather hurt than feel nothing at all." They are speaking for all of us long-suffering Philadelphians.

Having said all this, research tells me there is real reason to worry. In the last 30 years, only two teams became world champions averaging fewer than four runs per game: the 1995 Atlanta Braves and the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers. Only eight did it averaging fewer than 4 1/2. The Phillies entered yesterday averaging 3.96 runs per game (11th of 16 NL teams). To understand how miserable that is, consider that the Phillies averaged 4.93 runs in 2008, 5.06 in 2009 and 4.77 last year, good enough to rank second, first and second in the NL, respectively.

To make you even more depressed, consider the Phillies' incredible power outage. From 2008 to 2010, they hit 214, 224 and 166 home runs, respectively. This year, the Phils have hit 38, before last night - a pace that would yield only 131 home runs for the entire season. Considering the small size of modern ballparks, that low output might rival the 1959 "Go-Go" Chicago White Sox, who hit 97 for the season and had only two players in double figures (Sherm Lollar, 22; Al Smith, 17).

Given all of this, is there any reason to hope? Sure there is! Consider those other two clubs that won it all without scoring four runs a game. They had great starting pitching, as do we. The 1988 Dodgers had four starters with ERAs under 3.00 (Orel Hershiser, 2.26; John Tudor, 2.32; Tim Belcher and Tim Leary, 2.91 each). The 1995 Braves had three aces in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and Maddux was 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA.

The 1989 Oakland Athletics averaged only 4.4 runs per game, but had a big four - Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Bob Welch and Storm Davis - who won an incredible 76 games combined. The 1981 Dodgers managed only 4.1 runs per game in the strike-shortened season, but their top three starters all had ERAs below 2.50 (Burt Hooton, 2.28; Jerry Reuss, 2.30; Fernando Valenzuela, 2.48), and Bob Welch's was 3.44.

So as we suspected, great pitching can prevail even in the face of weak power and run production. Remember, last year's world champion San Francisco Giants couldn't hit a lick (team batting average of .257, with hardly any power). The Phillies' big four are all off to very good starts, and there is every reason to believe they can sustain it throughout the season.

As for hitting, it will get better. Last year, we suffered through similar painful hitting droughts, but in the end, the Phillies ended up scoring the second-most runs in the NL. Additionally, Chase is back, and while it is unfair to expect him to single-handedly turn it around, his return will make the whole lineup better. I also think the Phils made a very good pickup in Scott Podsednik. He was a key to the 2005 White Sox' world championship, and he hit around .300 in each of his previous two seasons. He is an excellent baserunner and can help manufacture runs if the power numbers don't accelerate. And, of course, there is real hope that Domonic Brown can be a big help, as well.

So Phillies fans go ahead and worry all you want. It will turn out all right. For the time being, you'll have to take comfort in the fact that the Mets and the Nationals are really, really bad. *

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