David Murphy: Washington power shift

Posted: May 08, 2012

WASHINGTON - Once upon a time, the Phillies were the team that dressed in red and white and energized its fan base by going first to third and stealing home.

Sunday night, they were the team that pegged the hottest prospect in the game in the small of the back and then watched him work his way around the bases to the delight of the crowd. Even if you are not a fan of symbolism, you have to admit that the run that Bryce Harper manufactured run in the first inning of Sunday night's 9-3 win over the Nationals was a tidy summation of the budding power shift in the National League East.

The Nationals are in first place, the Phillies are in last, and both teams spent the last 3 days proving themselves worthy of their designations.

At this point, the Phillies' victory should be regarded as little more than a footnote. In the first series of the season between the two teams, the Nationals not only won two out of three, but showed themselves to be everything that the Phillies once were. A team that runs the bases with intelligent abandon. A team that boasts one of the strongest bullpens in the game. A team that plays with an infectious energy capable of revitalizing a long-suffering fan base.

The Phillies? They are a .500 baseball team. Accept it now, and the rest of the month might not feel like a 25-day punch in the gut. Before Sunday night's game, all you needed to know about the NL East could be found in a copy of the standings under the column labeled "Streak."

In order: Washington, Atlanta, New York, Miami, and, of course, the Phillies, who had yet to win more than two games in a row.

The moral of the story: Chase Utley and Ryan Howard better hit the ground running, and not limping, whenever they finally return from their lengthy stays on the disabled list. And somebody better establish himself as a legitimate eighth-inning setup option, whether that somebody is Antonio Bastardo or Jose Contreras or current Triple A prospect Jake Diekman. Any other projection short of a Rollins-in-2007 redux has the Phillies spending the rest of the season the way they spent the first weekend of May: watching other teams play the type of baseball that they used to play.

Yes, it is early. Chances are, Jimmy Rollins will not hit .229 with no home runs for the rest of the season. And you have to believe that Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino will wind up with an on- base percentages better than the .289 they carried into Sunday night's game.

But if you are going to play that game, you have to play it fairly and acknowledge that Carlos Ruiz likely will not hit .325/.352/.588 with 33 home runs, as he entered Sunday on pace to do. Same goes for Laynce Nix, who carried a 1.025 OPS. Will a 34-year-old Juan Pierre really hit 30 points higher than his career average? Will Victorino set a career high in home runs and avoid the disabled list?

Take the 2011 numbers of the eight position players who started Sunday night's game and combine them with the numbers that Phillies pitchers posted at the plate last season and you get a .325 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage for a .715 OPS. Six teams in the NL will start the week with an OPS higher than .715.

The Phillies are what their record says they are, which is a middle-of-the-pack team with no sure-fire All-Stars. They are the 76ers, a collection of players who might look good when packaged around a superstar, but who can't help but founder on their own.

The good news is that four of their next five series will be played against teams who enter Monday with losing records. The bad news is that the Phillies are only 10-10 against those types of teams this season.

Even worse news is that four of the six opponents who follow this stretch are teams that entered Sunday in first place in their divisions: Washington, St. Louis, the Dodgers, and the Orioles. The Phillies seem optimistic that at least one of their injured stars will be back in the lineup by that point.

Utley spent Sunday working out with the team and watching video in a room near the entrance to the visitor's clubhouse at Nationals Park. The hope is that he will head to Clearwater, Fla., at some point late next week, at which point he will make final preparations for the rigors that his injured knees will endure once he begins playing in live-game situations.

Howard is already in Florida working his surgically-repaired Achilles' tendon into game shape. The Phillies have declined to publicize the return date they have targeted for either player, but the fact that neither has been placed on the 60-day disabled list is an indication that they still view the first week of June as a possibility. Regardless, the pertinent question is what happens after they return.

If you are betting on a hot start by Howard, then you are betting against the history of a lot of players who have returned from Achilles' injuries. In spring training, Howard acknowledged that he might not be completely healthy until after the All-Star Break, and that was before his rehab was interrupted by a lengthy battle with an infection.

Utley, meanwhile, seems destined to spend the rest of the season in a perpetual state of "day-to-day," his balky knees liable to flare up the way they did during spring training, which the Phillies entered with high hopes that their former All-Star second baseman would be ready for Opening Day.

As for the bullpen, what you've seen is what you cannot continue to get. Last year, the Phillies lost five games in which they held a lead at the start of the eighth inning. They have lost three already this season.

We are still at a point in the season where what happens during the course of the game can tell you more about a team than the final result. In the top of the seventh Sunday night, the Phillies loaded the bases with no out. Then Harper made a diving catch, followed by a strong throw from center by Rick Ankiel, followed by a Laynce Nix strikeout against hard-throwing reliever Craig Stammen. Each play elicited roars from the crowd as the Phillies squandered their chance to add to a 3-1 lead.

Even in defeat, the Nationals provided plenty of fodder for those who believe there is a new hierarchy in the NL East.


Contact David Murphy at murphyd@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at @HighCheese.

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