Inside the Phillies: Phils are contenders, but hitting is still a concern

Posted: May 16, 2013

Forty games in, here's all we know about the Phillies for sure: They are flawed, but not finished.

Sure, they can be infuriating.

Twenty-two times in their first 40 games they scored three or fewer runs. In 16 of those games, they scored fewer than two. They have been blanked five times. There are days when you wonder whether manager Charlie Manuel is throwing out a lineup filled with eight-hole hitters.

The biggest question coming out of spring training was the right arm of Roy Halladay, and that's one of the few conclusive answers the Phillies have received. The answer was a negative one, but it was an answer nonetheless and at least the Phillies can move on without him.

Besides, whatever they were expecting from Halladay, they have received from righthander Kyle Kendrick with the added bonus of being 6-2 in games started by John Lannan and Jonathan Pettibone.

Pettibone, in his fifth career start, gave the Phillies everything they asked for and more again Tuesday night in a 6-2 win over the Cleveland Indians. Facing a white-hot Indians lineup, which battered Halladay and Cliff Lee two weeks ago, Pettibone allowed just two runs - both in the second inning - on four hits in 62/3 innings.

He lowered his ERA to 3.41, and the Phillies improved to 4-1 in his starts. He has gone at least five innings and allowed three or fewer runs in all five of his starts and two or fewer in three of them. That's the kind of thing that can lift a team trying to find its way, and the Phillies certainly qualify as that kind of team a quarter of the way through the season.

Even though some of their pitching numbers look shaky, it's clear the biggest issues facing this team are the offense in general and the outfield in particular.

The overall team ERA has been on the decline for a while. It fell to a season-low 4.05 with Tuesday night's win, and since the Phils were outscored by 20-2 in the two-game series against the Indians in Cleveland, the team's ERA is 3.01.

At the very least, there is every reason to believe that Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Kendrick will continue to pitch well the rest of this season. And there might not be a better closer than Jonathan Papelbon in the National League.

Offensively, the Phillies remain a scary bunch, and not in a good way.

"I think we're going to get better," Manuel said. "I keep saying I think [Delmon] Young is going to hit, and Chooch [Carlos Ruiz] is starting to swing the bat better. That's going to give us a better lineup."

Domonic Brown has been the only reason to have optimism about the outfield, and that continued Tuesday when he hit his seventh home run of the season, a solo shot off lefthander Scott Kazmir in the sixth inning.

"I still want to see us play real good in the outfield," Manuel said. "I want us to improve, and I think we're doing that. I think Dom Brown has improved, without a doubt."

Manuel pushed some of the right buttons against the Indians, giving Chase Utley the night off and replacing him in the lineup with Kevin Frandsen, who homered in the first inning to raise his average to .467 (7 for 15) against lefties.

The other lineup move that paid off was replacing Ben Revere, the Phillies' biggest disappointment in the first 40 games, with John Mayberry Jr., whose streak of disappointing play is in its second season. Mayberry went into the game hitting .218 overall and .214 against lefthanders. He had never faced Kazmir, who is attempting a comeback after pitching last year in the Atlantic League.

Mayberry delivered on this night with three hits and three RBIs, including a two-run double off Kazmir that gave the Phillies a 3-2 lead in the fourth inning.

The Phillies' third consecutive win put them at 19-21 with 122 games remaining.

We have not seen the last of this team's flaws, but it's important to look at many factors when evaluating a baseball team. The two teams that went to the World Series a year ago were a combined 40-40 after 40 games last season. The San Francisco Giants were 21-19 and the Detroit Tigers were 19-21.

The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals had a chance to pull away from the Phillies in the first quarter of the season, and neither team has done that. The Nationals have been every bit as offensively challenged as the Phillies so far, and the Braves have good but not great starting pitching.

All teams are flawed and the Phillies might be too flawed to make the playoffs. But 40 games in, it would be foolish to say they are finished.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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