Phillies hitters need to look in Manuel's mirror

Charlie Manuel on hitters: 'You can say whatever you want. But they've got the wood in their hand.'
Charlie Manuel on hitters: 'You can say whatever you want. But they've got the wood in their hand.' (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff photographer)
Posted: June 23, 2011

ST. LOUIS - The tone was conversational, the posture casual. But if you listened to the words that Charlie Manuel said, really listened, there was more than just the usual afternoon banter.

The Phillies manager doesn't call out his players in public. That doesn't work anymore, not with the security that comes with high salaries and long-term contracts. But his frustration with the team's sputtering, stuttering offense has been bubbling just below the surface for a while now. So as he sat in the dugout before last night's 4-0 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, his core message was strikingly similar to the look-in-the-mirror challenge hurled so effectively by Dallas Green 30 years ago.

Don't look at him. Don't look at hitting coach Greg Gross. Don't look at anybody. He's seeing too many impatient, unfocused at-bats, and it's nobody's fault but the guy standing at the plate.

He didn't say it quite that bluntly. He never raised his voice. But figuring out his point wasn't exactly like translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, either. It started with a simple question about what can be done to help players have better at-bats and sort of mushroomed from there.

"You don't. That's preparation. That's focus. That's what it is. It's up to you to do that. There's nobody livin' who can help you do that," Manuel said.

And: "We can talk about it, but you've got to learn that yourself and work on that yourself," he said.

And: "If you're going to chase balls 2-0, sinkers down and away, balls over your head . . . It's kind of up to the player. And a lot of times they don't even want to hear it," he said.

And: "When you talk about swinging at bad pitches, especially when you're up in the count, what are you doing wrong? I'd say that's what you're doing wrong. You're getting yourself out," he said.

And: "You can say whatever you want. But they've got the wood in their hand. They're standing there. They're getting paid to hit, you know?" he said.

Look in the mirror . . .

Numbers can be twisted to prove just about anything, but here's a telling stat: In 2007, the Phillies led the league in both walks (641) and runs scored (892). Last year, they had 81 fewer walks and scored 120 fewer runs.

That's not entirely a coincidence. Breaking hitting down to its simplest form, Manuel likes to say, it's a matter of getting a good pitch and then hitting it.

The 1993 Phillies had three players with more than 100 walks (Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, John Kruk) and Dave Hollins had 85. Jayson Werth led last year's team with 82 walks. And he's playing for the Nationals now.

The last Phillie with 100 walks in a season was Pat Burrell in 2008. He's gone, too.

Bases on balls are only a rough measuring stick, though, a symptom of a larger overall problem. "Taking pitches is not [everything]. It's how you take them and how you work the count. You've got to have a strike zone. You've got to know the strike zone," Manuel explained. "Can they change? It might be hard for them."

The Phillies didn't exactly pound Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse last night. In the fourth inning, Jimmy Rollins hit a solo homer and Ryan Howard a two-run shot. Outside of that, they didn't get a runner past first in Lohse's eight innings. Cliff Lee's complete-game shutout took care of the rest.

For the next 5 weeks, until baseball observes the annual July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, there will be fevered speculation about which righthanded hitter the Phillies may pick up.

That's not a magic cure-all, though, even if general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his lieutenants can find the right guy at the right price, both in terms of salary and prospects. A lot of money has been spent to construct the roster that's here right now, a group that was deemed capable of making it to the World Series and winning it. For the Phillies to get where they ultimately want to be, more productive at-bats from the current players are a must.

During the winter, Amaro said he thought the team could make up for the loss of Werth by having players coming off down years rebound. Manuel yesterday offered a boilerplate prediction that his hitters will heat up soon.

Of course, he has been saying that for a while now. Still waiting. In their first 75 games, the Phillies have scored three or fewer runs an astonishing 39 times.

It could still happen. Manuel's teams have a history of turning it on in the second half. It's also possible that for whatever reason - losing a little bit of an edge because of so much recent success or advancing age, perhaps - what you see is what you get.

That wouldn't make it impossible for the Phillies to bring home another big shiny trophy this October. But it would make it a lot more difficult.

Send email to hagenp@phillynews.com

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