So far, Phillies offensively challenged

Posted: March 12, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The game was nearly over as Domonic Brown found the chair in front of his locker stall, sat down and chucked his cleats aside.

He was likely en route to joining Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley in the indoor cages. Even though they were subbed out of the lineup, the two longest-tenured Phillies players were not finished for the day.

Instead, they were working up a new sweat, taking swings in the batting cage that sits under the infamous Tiki Bar at Bright House Field.

Some come to Clearwater to play, by way of a beverage dressed up with one of those little umbrellas. Others come to Clearwater to work.

Utley, Rollins and the rest of the Phillies fall into the second category. And after another lackluster, 8-1 exhibition loss to the Atlanta Braves, it was clear the Phillies could use any extra hitting help they could get, whether on or off the clock.

No team in baseball has scored fewer runs per game this spring. Three weeks away from Opening Day, the Phillies are having trouble scoring runs.

"Damn right we are," Brown said.

Brown went 0-for-3 with a strikeout yesterday. He is a week removed from his last hit.

"It's frustrating," Brown said. "I hate striking out. It's crazy. I feel great. Everything looks good. It's just not here right now."

The likelihood of the Phillies rebounding from two lackluster seasons and returning to contention rests largely on the ability of their core four - Utley, Rollins, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz - to remain healthy and productive, too. It's a combination they haven't been able to figure for the last 4 years.

But Brown, a first-time All-Star in 2013, is the bridge from the senior members of the lineup to the younger generation of hitters filtering into the everyday eight. He's hitting .091 (2-for-22) with nine strikeouts in nine games this spring.

Brown is hardly alone in his struggles. Rollins (.133), Utley (.158) and Howard (.182) are also under the Mendoza Line, at least if there is such a stat applied when examining spring-training numbers.

"We have to find it," Brown said. "We have all the right pieces."

Brown was more self-critical than anything, believing his team had enough veteran leadership to ignore the 2-9-2 record following 2 weeks of exhibition play.

Brown wasn't alone in that thinking. It's spring. The sun is out, the palm trees are swaying and the games don't count. Why worry?

"It's March 10 and it's also spring-training atmosphere, some guys get two at-bats, three at-bats and [they're] out [of the game]," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "Sprinkled with days off in there, it's more of a choppy schedule for the guys. [We're] still seeing [other players], giving everybody a couple of at-bats. Maybe it's hard for guys to get into a groove, get into a rhythm."

It is only March 10, but . . .

"There is no 'but,' " Rollins said. "Who cares?"

Perhaps the people back in Philadelphia, who don't have the warm weather to make them feel better about the prospects of a plentiful season for their former summer heroes.

If you're in Philly and casually following along with the Phillies this spring, you're seeing a lot of underwhelming box scores. Yesterday, a two-out single from non-roster player Reid Brignac prevented the Phils from being shut out.

The Phillies have scored three runs or fewer in nine of their 13 games. They've scored two runs or less in six of 10 games this month.

At the conclusion of yesterday's game, the Phillies were 30th among Major League Baseball's 30 teams in hitting (.194), OPS (.589), OBP (.285) and extra-base hits (23). Only the Astros had fewer hits - but Houston has played three fewer games.

"I like to look at it in a Bobby Cox form - there are a whole bunch of Hank Aarons in spring training," Rollins said, invoking the former Atlanta manager's famous quote about reading too much into exhibition numbers. "So if you're not hitting in spring training, I guess you're no good, right?"

In fact . . .

Last spring, only seven major league teams scored fewer runs than the St. Louis Cardinals during exhibition play. Only eight teams scored fewer runs than the Boston Red Sox.

"And they are the world champions," Rollins said of the Red Sox, before catching himself. "They were the world champions. It's a new season this year. But it's always the same story: You come here and you work towards getting ready for the start of the season. Then, when the season starts, things matter."

What matters now, in the world according to Jimmy Rollins, is health. The aforementioned quartet of Rollins, Utley, Howard and Ruiz has started a combined 116 games together in the last four seasons.

With health today through the end of March comes a team ready to perform in April, Rollins said.

But people wavering on whether to put out more than a few hard-earned dollars on tickets at Citizens Bank Park next month - and in the months that follow, too - would probably be more motivated to do so if they saw results in March. Even if those results don't matter.

The Phillies already have been labeled old and over the hill and, now, incapable of scoring runs following the first 2 weeks of spring. (Actually, they also ranked third-to-last in the NL in runs scored in 2013, too).

"[People] are going to think and feel and say what they want regardless," Rollins said. "We're not here to change opinions. We're here to put wins in the left column. We're going to lose some, too, but we're not here to lose. We're here to put wins up."

And if the offense comes around and the wins pile up in April, no one will care about March, right?

"As long as those wins are coming in October," Rollins said.

Rollins, who is hitless in his last 12 at-bats, is in a funk. Brown, too. And Howard. And Utley.

But Brown is hopeful and confident, Sandberg sees a lineup of potential and Rollins is the realist who scoffs at the spring stats and the win-lose results that don't matter.

"In spring training, you're training, you're putting in the work," Rollins said, adding that he might experiment with things in the spring since he's not worried about failure affecting himself or his team.

"When the season starts, that's when results matter," he said. "There really is no other way to put it. No one talks about preseason in June. You know what I'm saying? No one does."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21


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