Sam Donnellon: Excitement in the air for Phillies

Posted: June 28, 2012

CHASE UTLEY is back and everyone is understandably excited about it. Ryan Howard hopes to officially begin his rehab assignment Thursday in Lakewood. It's good to see familiar faces again, but if you want to know the dirty little truth, it would be a lot better to see some familiar faces get good again.

And so the real news of Tuesday night was not what Utley did in Allentown, or even Howard's date with the doctor Wednesday. The real news of Tuesday night was that Michael Schwimer bailed out Vance Worley big time in the seventh inning, and Antonio Bastardo survived a leadoff double in the eighth, and Carlos Ruiz hit an eighth-inning moonbeam that allowed Jonathan Papelbon to be less than perfect in notching his 18th save in 19 tries. The Phillies won, 5-4, beat the Pirates for the second night in a row and have now won nine games in this month that cannot end soon enough.

Utley's return should help, even if he doesn't right away. It means Hunter Pence can slide down to a more comfortable and less dependent spot in the order, and Shane Victorino too. And maybe, just maybe, it will equate to more runs.

The conundrum, of course, is that the Phillies' offense has awakened this month, at least compared to the first two — and they have done worse. Ty Wigginton's third-inning home run and Chooch's eighth-inning bomb gave the Phillies 28 this month, near the top among major league teams.

Runs have not been a problem on most nights.

Getting to their closer has.

Before the game, Charlie Manuel touted the talent of the young bullpen arms that have caused such fan angina. The public perception is that they are just not good enough. Manuel's contention is that they may simply not be seasoned enough. "You pitched in Minnesota and Baltimore," he said. "All of a sudden you're in Philly. The players hear things and they read and they watch TV. And also they look up and see all those people in the third deck. Philly. It takes an adjustment to get used to it. It's all part of it."

Or as he said later, "part of a test." Schwimer entered the seventh inning with nobody out, two runners already across and the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead. Jose Tabata hit one back to him for the first out, Neil Walker hit a shallow fly ball that John Mayberry turned into a doubleplay throwout at home.

Bastardo's first pitch in the eighth inning banged off the leftfield wall. Two popups and a fist-pumping strikeout later, Andrew McCutcheon was still on second base and the Phillies still held that one-run lead.

"The test is not over yet," Manuel said. "But any time you get people out like that in a game, that's definitely a positive. And the experience they got, I think that's all part of it. I think that's how they get consistent in this game. The more times they can go out there and succeed and leave the game on a good note, that's how confidence builds. And that's when they don't mind getting creative with their catcher."

When Roy Halladay was healthy and Cliff Lee was, well, Cliff Lee, this seemed less of a problem than it is now. But whether it was the result of Lee feeling the pressure of pitching mistake-free each time out and thus trying to be too precise, or simply the ebbs and flows a starter goes through during a season, Lee is a guy who, right now at least, would benefit from a couple of dependable middle relievers. Come to think of it, so would Cole Hamels.

Still, Jimmy Rollins is hot and Ruiz hasn't cooled off yet and the two players who have manned the middle of their lineup are about to return to those places. Sure there are question marks about both, especially in the short term, but if some team offered both for nothing in a trade you'd take 'em and play ‘em, right?

Ah, but where to stack the rest. Ruiz had three more hits, including that cushioning homer in the eighth, and now owns a .361 average. It seems logical that Pence would bat fifth when Utley returns to the three spot, presumably Wednesday night. But when Howard returns, does Chooch immediately slide to fifth or even sixth, behind Pence and his slightly better power?

Especially since Manuel quoted Howard from a recent phone conversation, "I don't know if I'll be where you want me to be or not" when he first returns to the Phillies.

For years some fans have been clamoring for Howard to hit fifth. With Ruiz swinging the way he is, maybe they'll finally get that wish. Manuel even seemed entertained by the potential conundrum Tuesday night, and why not. In a season of choosing between lesser evils, this one sits on the opposite end. n

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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