In short, the Phillies are not a good baseball team, and they have produced little evidence that they will ever become one.
"We don't scare nobody," Manuel said. "We used to have a swagger. We used to be kind of cocky in a real good way. Teams used to definitely fear us. I definitely don't see that fear no more. I'm sorry. I'm answering the question very honestly. I don't see where we scare nobody. Nobody backs down from us. Matter of fact, they come right at us. They take it right to us."
The Phillies also used to have players who did all of the things that the current incarnation of the team has failed to do throughout much of the season. "We have good players, but I guess when you aren't hitting towering 500-foot home runs . . . ," said lefthander Cole Hamels, his voice trailing off for a moment. "I guess all I really remember, and what Charlie is trying to say was intimidating, is that every inning we were hitting homers and striking guys out when we were pitching and shutting the door, and we haven't been doing that right now.
“We have to get that kind of intensity and energy back, because we need to put it back into saying ‘No, you can't chip us away, we are going to stay up there.' But we're obviously not at the top, so we have a long way to go."
They have done it before: in 2010, when they were seven games out of first place on July 21; in 2009, when they lost six straight games and 11 of 13 in mid-to-late June. But they also had players capable of reaching base regularly and driving in chunks of runs with one swing of the bat. Those players just needed to play to their potential.
What, exactly, is the potential of the lineup that took the field on Thursday afternoon? This offseason, the Phillies knew they had two big holes to fill, one of them in leftfield and one of them at first base. On Thursday, the two players charged with filling those holes combined to go 0-for-9. Juan Pierre, who went 0-for-5, is hitting .319 with a .356 on-base percentage, but nothing about his track record suggests that he will ever come close to replacing the power the Phillies lost when Ryan Howard hit the disabled list and Raul Ibanez hit free agency. They hoped John Mayberry Jr. would fill that role, but aside from the 296 plate appearances he logged in 2011, they had seen little evidence that he could do so on a regular basis. After an 0-for-4 showing, he is hitting .225.
The Phillies knew Placido Polanco had missed significant time due to injury over the previous two seasons, but they backed him up with a player in Ty Wigginton who is regarded by talent evaluators as a below-average defender. Yesterday, Wigginton committed two straight errors in the fourth inning, which led to a crucial unearned run. The Phillies entered the season with a setup man who had spent the previous 2 years bouncing from team to team thanks to innings like the one that occurred in the ninth on Thursday, when Chad Qualls dug a bases-loaded hole that his defense could not help him dig out of. Mike Fontenot committed an error that allowed one run to score, and Mayberry was unable to snag a sharp hopper that ended up in rightfield for a two-run double.
The only realistic hope is that established veterans like Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence find the grooves that have eluded them for much of the season, and that the starting pitching staff can put together one of the runs of dominance that they are capable of.
"When I signed on to take this job 7 or 8 years ago or whatever it was, I signed on to win," Manuel said as his team, 28-31 and six games out of first, prepared for a nine-game interleague road trip. "I'm still here to win. And you can hold me accountable for anything our team does. And I mean that."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at @HighCheese.