Slow starts have hamstrung Phils for years

Chase Utley has not been much better
Chase Utley has not been much better (than Ryan Howard was before Howard went on the DL. CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: July 20, 2013

The Phillies went into the all-star break talking about getting a fresh start when the season resumed Friday in New York.

That sounds nice, except for two things: It is not a fresh start, and the last thing in the world this slow-idling team needs is another start to squander.

Seriously, it is in the DNA of this Phillies core group to treat April and May as the pregame stretch period before the season really begins. This is the flip side of the stats you've seen about how strong the Phillies have finished over the last five or six years. Those intense late-season pushes have been made necessary by the lackadaisical early-season attitude.

With the exception of 2011 - the Year of the Four Aces, when they were 51-31 through June on their way to 102 wins - the Phillies of this era have been the definition of mediocre through June.

Aside from that season, their record through June since 2006 is 276-280, while intoning "It's still early" after every bad loss.

Those words were rolled out right away this year. The Phillies opened in Atlanta with two losses, including blowups by Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay. Cliff Lee prevented a sweep with a 2-0 shutout in the third game.

Still early? Too soon to take much from it? Sure, except the Braves won their next 10 games. By April 17, the Phillies were 61/2 games behind Atlanta. That is exactly where they are as the season resumes.

So there is something to be said for quick starts, and there is a price to be paid for lousy starts. Of course the season wasn't over when the Phillies stumbled out of the blocks. It was just a squandered opportunity. If either the Braves or Nationals had lived up to expectations, the Phillies' start would have been fatal to their chances.

That is one reason you hope the Phillies don't view this weekend series against the Mets as a fresh start. They can't afford that mind-set. They must play with something they don't usually acquire until the trade deadline - urgency.

The other reason, of course, is that it isn't a start at all. The previous 96 results count. They are not even with their rivals for either the NL East title or the two wild-card berths. Along with Atlanta, they trail Washington by a half-game. They are closer to the fourth-place Mets (who trail the Phillies by 41/2 games) than the first-place Braves.

If there is a glimmer of hope, it's in the way the Phillies were trending going into the break. They have won nine of 13 games. They have done that without satisfactory contributions from some of their key players, including Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz. With Ryan Howard recovering from knee surgery, it would be more than nice to have these guys live up to their reputations. It is essential.

If Utley has gotten the kind of criticism Howard routinely gets, I missed it somehow. The second baseman's numbers are remarkably close to the first baseman's, and we now know Howard was playing on a knee that required surgery.

The irony, of course, is that a strong showing by Utley could launch the Phillies toward the postseason or it could lead to Utley's being launched out of town. He will be in the middle of trade speculation, along with Ruiz and Michael Young and Jonathan Papelbon, until the deadline passes at the end of July.

Rollins historically has been a better second-half hitter, but the key concept there might be "history." Like Utley and Ruiz, he is 34. There is a point in every athlete's career when precedent is less a predictor for the future than a sad reminder of what time does to us all.

In the Phillies' best years, Utley, Rollins, and Howard - with occasional help from Ruiz or Jayson Werth or Shane Victorino - would take turns getting hot. The offense remained consistently productive, even if the individual players were not. With pitching that ranged from good to great, that formula worked awfully well.

Domonic Brown stepped into that role this season. For the formula to work, some combination of Utley, Rollins, and Ruiz has to take its turn in the second half.

They can start Friday, even if it isn't the start at all.

Contact Phil Sheridan


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