Inside the Phillies: At 21-21, Phillies remain a puzzle

Posted: May 22, 2012

Forty-two down is the answer to how many games the Phillies have played so far this season.

Twenty-one across is the answer to the Phillies' number of wins and losses.

This is not a crossword puzzle, but the Phillies have heard their share of cross words during this puzzling first month and a half of the 2012 season.

They heard more during and after Sunday's listless 5-1 interleague loss to the Boston Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park.

With their needle stuck again at .500, the Phillies lost ground to every team in the National League East and lost most of the momentum they had gained during a six-game winning streak that consisted mostly of victories against the dregs of Major League Baseball.

You could make the argument that while treading water, the Phillies have remained in the thick of the National League playoff race through the first 42 games, and you wouldn't be wrong. Despite their inconsistency and failure to take advantage of a soft spot in the schedule, they are only five games out of first place in the division and 11/2 games out of the league's fifth playoff berth that will come into play for the first time this season.

We will find out a lot more about the Phillies in the next three weeks when they play six consecutive series against teams that currently have winning records, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles, the teams with the best records in each league.

"I think that is a test for us," manager Charlie Manuel said after another day of lamenting wasted scoring opportunities. "I think we can handle it, but we've got to play good and be more consistent. That's something we talk about every day."

It's difficult to pinpoint how the Phillies have hit blackjack in both the games won and lost columns, because there have been a lot of different problems at different times. One team source said the Phillies struggle to play good situational baseball, and that is a problem.

We saw it last year during the divisional series loss to St. Louis when the Cardinals hitters clearly had the better, grind-it-out at-bats. We saw that again in the Phillies' two losses to a Red Sox team that still has a jet-fueled offense despite the absences of Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, and Carl Crawford.

The Red Sox saw 39 more pitches than the Phillies in winning the final two games at Citizens Bank Park. Think of how many more chances that is to make something happen at the plate.

With runners at second and third and one out in the bottom of the third inning Sunday, Jimmy Rollins rolled a grounder to third base that failed to produce a run. Before Sunday, the Phillies ranked 21st in baseball with a .274 average when they had a runner at third and fewer than two outs. They were 25th in runs scored in those situations.

"I think we don't have the big bats like Chase [Utley] and [Ryan] Howard, so it's important, but even if we did have them, it's still important," third baseman Placido Polanco said.

To blame Blackjack Ball entirely on the offense would be an incorrect assumption. It's true the Phillies struggled to score runs for much of April, but they have scored four or more in 13 of 19 games this month and are still just one game over .500.

The bullpen had a meltdown earlier this month, and the Phillies' 1-5 record in six home games against the Mets is the main reason a mediocre New York team still feels good about itself as the schedule approaches Memorial Day.

Roy Halladay blew what should have been a sure win in Atlanta, and Cliff Lee has yet to register a win in six starts. The Phillies are 2-10 in the last 12 games started by Halladay and Lee, a duo paid to produce wins closer to a 10-2 rate. That's not all their fault, but they are not entirely blameless, either.

"That's on me right there," Lee said after surrendering five runs in the first three innings to the Red Sox.

He was right.

Now, an ultra-difficult, 20-game stretch begins Monday night against the Washington Nationals, a team that felt pretty good about itself after taking two of three games from the Phils in the nation's capital earlier this month.

"For us, it's just about playing fundamental baseball and competing and playing the game the right way," Lee said. "If we do that, we can beat anyone. If we don't, anyone can beat us. To me, it just boils down to that. Obviously, we haven't been as consistent as we would like to be, and our record shows it."

Blackjack on both sides of the ledger is not a winning hand, and all we can say for sure about the Phillies is that they've tested the nerves and patience of their fans. Their resolve will be on trial in the coming weeks as everyone awaits the uncertain return dates of Utley and Howard.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow @brookob on Twitter.

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