Alternate realities are difficult to project, but the one that would have existed if Ruben Amaro Jr. had decided to sign a legitimate run-producing leftfielder during the offseason is clearly a reality that would have trumped the current one, which sees the Phillies sitting nine games under .500 even after their 9-2 win over the Mets. Hindsight is 20 / 20, but it is not an absolution for a lack of foresight. The Phillies knew, or should have known, that Ryan Howard would miss at least 2 months, and they knew, or should have known, he had the potential to miss more. They knew, or should have known, that chronic knee conditions can flare up without much warning. And they knew, or should have known, that their offense was often in need of another bat even when Utley and Howard were healthy in 2011.
Yet they chose to staff leftfield with an unproven John Mayberry Jr. and a gaggle of veterans who would be part-time players on most World Series contenders. Look again at those 13 one-run losses, those 13 games when one swing of the bat could have made the kind of difference Utley made Wednesday. Combined, Phillies leftfielders went 12-for-48 (.250) with five RBI and three extra-base hits. Now look at what some of the leftfielders who were available have averaged every 48 at-bats this season.
Josh Willingham: 13 hits, seven extra-base hits, three home runs, 10 RBI.
Carlos Beltran: 14 hits, five extra-base hits, three home runs, 11 RBI
Jason Kubel: 14 hits, six extra-base hits, two home runs, nine RBI
Look at those numbers. How many one-run losses would they have prevented? Three? Four? More? That's before we consider the multitude of other defeats the Phillies have suffered. Without Utley, there is a good chance Wednesday would have resulted in another. For six innings, the Phillies could not get close enough to tell you what home plate smells like. Young retired 18 of the first 20 batters he faced before allowing a single to Juan Pierre to lead off the seventh. That's when Utley struck, lining a 1-0 fastball into the seats in rightfield and evening the score, 2-2. Maybe Young would have grooved a 1-0 fastball to Ruiz anyway, and maybe Ruiz would have treated it the same way he did Wednesday, blasting it over the leftfield wall for his 13th home run of the season. But at the very least, the back-to-back shots by Utley and Ruiz prevented the Mets from utilizing the back of their bullpen, and instead prompted Terry Collins to call on Miguel Batista, Tim Byrdak and Jeremy Hefner, who combined to allow six runs in the final two innings.
Over the last month, the struggles of the bullpen and the rotation have replaced the offense as the Phillies' top concerns. Still, you cannot ignore the possibility that the lineup's putrid start to the season contributed to the pitching woes.
When a reporter asked Manuel to pinpoint the biggest difference in Cliff Lee, who recorded his first win of the season by holding the Mets to two runs while striking out nine in eight innings, the manager pointed to the offense.
"The biggest difference was that two-run homer Utley hit in the seventh and then the solo shot that Chooch hit," he said.
Although Lee had allowed at least four runs in each of his previous four starts, you cannot forget games like the 2-1 loss they suffered to the Pirates on April 7, or the 1-0 loss to the Giants on April 18, or the 2-1 loss to the Dodgers on June 5, all of which were started by Lee, who allowed three runs in 23?2/3 innings in the defeats. Nor can you ignore the fact that the Phillies entered Wednesday having scored a total of seven runs in their previous four games, all of them losses. Or the fact that five of their 27 losses in the last 43 games have occurred despite their holding an opponent below four runs.
Utley might be back. And Howard might join him within the next 2 weeks. But it might be too late.
Contact David Murphy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.