For Phils, there's plenty of blame to go around

As bad as Phils hitters have been, the teams's real problem lies with their pitching. Above, Ryan Howard whiffs again.
As bad as Phils hitters have been, the teams's real problem lies with their pitching. Above, Ryan Howard whiffs again. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 26, 2013

As the Phillies eased off the gas at the close of the 2011 regular season and coasted toward what was expected to be an extended playoff run, they lost 12 of their final 20 games. No one made very much of it, because there was no reason to, and because the 142 games that preceded the rest-and-refresh finish seemed like a more convincing barometer of what was to come.

The playoff run turned out to be limited to five games against the St. Louis Cardinals, however. What could have been a first-round sweep slipped away as Cliff Lee couldn't protect a four-run lead in the second game and as the offense went cold and quiet in the final 1-0 loss. The image of Ryan Howard, writhing on the ground after tearing an Achilles following the last swing of the year, has become emblematic of the end of more than just that season.

Nothing much has been the same since. Just two years after setting a franchise record with 102 wins, the team is on pace to endure its first losing season since 2002. Starting with that 20-game stretch to close out 2011, just as a handy pivot point for the fortunes of the organization, the Phillies have played to a record of 125-133 entering Monday night in San Diego.

Baseball is not a game that reveals itself in any given nine innings. It takes a sizable clump of games for the truth about a team to emerge. Well, 258 games is a pretty good clump, and the truth that has been revealed is that the Phils are at best a .500 team as they watch the great tide of their championship era ebb toward some distant shore.

With each passing week as the season edges toward the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July, the Phillies seem more certain they will be sellers. Manager Charlie Manuel, trying to play a bad final hand as well as possible, says he doesn't know how to fix the problems or even if they are fixable.

As always, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has been blamed for how the roster was assembled, particularly at third base and in the outfield. It's a popular pastime, but when the Phils won those 102 games, the pieces weren't all that much better when it came to power and production. Raul Ibanez, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Placido Polanco combined to provide 3.1 home runs and 13.3 runs batted in for every 100 at-bats. Domonic Brown, Delmon Young, John Mayberry Jr., Ben Revere, and Michael Young are giving the Phils 3.2 home runs and 10.5 RBI's for every 100 at-bats. It's not quite as good, but it isn't why the team was four games under .500 starting the road trip.

The Big Three of Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins, the infield core around which those other pieces were supposed to fit, is a bigger problem than the complementary players. In 2011, which really wasn't that good a season for the three, Howard, Utley, and Rollins combined for 60 home runs and 223 runs batted in over 1,522 at-bats. This season, if they get the same number of at-bats, their production pace will result in 45 home runs and 193 RBIs. That drop-off is far more significant, but it also doesn't account for the greatest share of the Phillies' woes.

As is almost always the case with baseball, the answer to the biggest question can be found on a small rise slightly more than 60 feet from home plate. This is unfortunate because it is the most difficult aspect of the game to fix.

In 2011, the seven pitchers who took starts for the Phillies (Joe Blanton, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Vance Worley) pitched to a 2.88 earned run average. That kind of pitching covers up an awful lot of problems.

In 2013, the seven pitchers who have taken starts for the Phillies before Monday night (Lee, Hamels, Kendrick, Halladay, John Lannan, Tyler Cloyd, and Jonathan Pettibone) have pitched to a 4.08 ERA. That kind of pitching reveals an awful lot of problems.

If the current staff of starters had a 2.88 ERA, then the offense wouldn't appear to be struggling as much, the bullpen wouldn't be overexposed, the piece players would seem better suited to their roles, and the aging stars could be accorded one final run at the postseason.

Management is not to blame for everything, because this is a fickle game. But Amaro and the front office did roll the dice on the starters, knowing that it would take good-to-great seasons from Lee, Halladay, and Hamels to offset the continuing offensive slide.

They have batted 1 for 3 on that gamble so far. Halladay's shoulder broke down and Hamels - run support or no run support - has given up 50 earned runs in 100 innings. Without cashing that bet, the team was sentenced to do what it has done, and will continue to do: Steer in circles around the .500 marker.

If Amaro can be indicted for anything, it is first-degree wishful thinking. Without outstanding starting pitching, there was no Plan B. The Phillies might have been good enough if they got that pitching. Regrettably, the opposite has proved true as well.

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