David Murphy: Phillies fumbling Howard, Utley situations

Jimmy Rollins removes helmet after being forced out by shortstop Mike Aviles on doubleplay. YONG KIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Jimmy Rollins removes helmet after being forced out by shortstop Mike Aviles on doubleplay. YONG KIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: May 22, 2012

WHAT DOESN’T kill a team can make it stronger, and if the Phillies survive the brutal 20-game stretch that they begin today, they will at least find themselves in position to make a run. But there is always cause for concern when a team’s greatest hope is an aphorism, and after a 5-1 loss to Josh Beckett and the Red Sox on Sunday, you had to wonder whether this lineup’s success in a recent six-game winning streak was proof of anything other than the mediocrity of the pitching it faced.

That wonder might disappear over the next 3 weeks, when the Phillies play 20 straight games against opponents who enter Monday with a winning record. Thus far, they have won just seven of 18 games against those types of teams, a .389 winning percentage that is the fourth-lowest in the NL. Winning 38.9 percent of the next 20 games would leave the 21-21 Phillies at 29-33 on June 11, which is hardly a death sentence. But even that record seemed like a stretch after Sunday’s defeat, especially when the two ingredients required for an extended stretch of offensive success were still on the sidelines nursing their bodies back to health.

Yesterday brought little clarity on the futures of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, only an oddly timed statement by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. about an Inquirer story that relayed varying medical opinions on cortisone shots like the one Howard received a few weeks before rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in Game 5 of the NLDS. Amaro summoned reporters during the early stages of Sunday’s game, laying out the organization’s argument that the cortisone shot and eventual injury were unrelated, an argument that would have made more sense to make prior to the publication of the article, which said the Phillies declined to do that.

The organization’s handling of the situation has little impact on the issue that the general public cares most about — when Howard will return to the lineup — but it does feed the perception, fair or not, that the Phillies themselves do not have a clear idea. For months, the team contended that the infection that Howard battled in spring training was not a setback and would not necessarily affect his return. But at some point in the last week, that rhetoric shifted so significantly that on Sunday Amaro was citing the infection as the reason Howard was still working his way back into baseball shape and not yet ready to embark on what is likely to be a lengthy slate of minor league rehab games. It is virtually impossible to play armchair medical doctor in a responsible fashion, and it makes little sense to do so when the medical doctors involved, as Amaro noted Sunday, are the most qualified and specialized that money can buy.

The Phillies’ biggest problem is not with their medical expertise, but with their media expertise, and their glaring inexperience with life as the No. 1 show in town, especially when the No. 1 show in town is underachieving. After Howard’s surgery in October, the club published a press release that quoted Amaro as saying that it would be “five to six months from the surgery until he can play at his accustomed level,” a timetable so optimistic that anybody with any degree of knowledge about Achilles’ injuries should have ignored it. It has been a little more than 7 months post-op , which is still in the early part of most announced timetables for returns from the injury. But those 7 months included the appearance of a projected timetable flip-flop, the appearance of an infection setback flip-flop, and, of course, the “Chase Utley is going to be ready for Opening Day … oh wait, no he’s not” flip-flop, which can make 7 months feel a lot like perpetuity.

If the Phillies were winning, this kind of stuff would not warrant a mention. But they are not winning, at least not at a rate better than one out of two games, and when anxious fans look to the organization for some sort of reassurance that things will improve, they instead get the impression that the front office at Citizens Bank Park is a fantasy land where the prevailing strategy is to cross fingers and wish hard enough. That’s not the reality, but the Phillies sometimes seem to go out of their way to create the perception, which can only work to their detriment as they try to keep fans flowing through the turnstiles and believing in a better tomorrow. For a deeper case study, see: Gold Standard, The.

During a disappointing season, a fan base will look to channel its disappointment into any opening that the organization provides. Given the nature of their reality on the field, a perception problem is not something the Phillies can afford.

Contact David Murphy at murphyd@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese.

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