For Phils so far, practice makes imperfect

Phillies' Ryan Howard walks back to the dugout after striking out during the seventh-inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, April 9, 2014. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Phillies' Ryan Howard walks back to the dugout after striking out during the seventh-inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, April 9, 2014. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Posted: April 11, 2014

Nothing in professional sports carries less overall meaning than the outcome of a single regular-season baseball game, or even a short stretch of games. The story of a major-league season is a quilt sewn tediously together bit-by-bit, day-by-day, and even the best teams in the game drop somewhere around 60 stitches before it is over.

It is tempting, though, to look through the microscope of one night and think there is something to discover. It's also wrong, but always tempting.

All right, that takes care of the qualifiers.

Maybe the Phillies will stop making so many errors and won't miss cutoff men or run the bases poorly again. Maybe their play in the first eight games of the season is an absolute anomaly that will be forgotten as the long stretch ahead unspools in its unhurried way.

It sure doesn't look that way, though. The Phils look like a sloppy club, and baseball does not reward teams that allow extra outs or fail to take advantage of their own opportunities.

Including three unearned runs in Wednesday night's 9-4 loss to Milwaukee, the Phillies have given up 10 unearned runs this season (in the space of three games!), and made a total of nine errors. This will even out, and they won't allow 200 unearned runs this year, but it's a troubling indication that this will be an exasperating team to watch.

"We're practicing," manager Ryne Sandberg said before the game, as the Phils went through a full infield drill. "It's the eighth game of the season and we're working on things. We want it to happen overnight, but we'll continue to work and stress it. That's what we can do, and we'll do it as a group."

The need to play sharp, focused baseball has been a mantra of Sandberg's since he took the job, and the recent sloppiness has to be particularly galling. He drove the team through a spring training during which there was more than the usual amount of drill work - for fielding, throwing, baserunning, situational play - all the things you expect to see repeatedly in a minor-league setting, but not necessarily at this level.

Obviously, Sandberg was right. They needed it, and still do. In the regular season, nothing about the preparation routine is going to change, according to the manager. Whether the mistakes continue is another matter. Practice doesn't always work.

"[Full infield practice] twice a homestand, then some optional things going on. We had pitchers' [fielding practice] yesterday, catchers throw to the bases tomorrow, outfielders throw today," Sandberg said. "All season, we'll have a routine like that."

Sandberg has told the grounds crew to have the field ready for the team's use 15 to 20 minutes earlier than it did last year, so that every home batting practice session is really extended at the beginning for the drills.

The veterans privately may view some of this as busy work, but that's their problem. They probably also roll their eyes at the new signs that line the hallway from the clubhouse to the dugout: Respect the Game. Be the Ultimate Teammate. Play the Game the Right Way. Burma Shave.

Those are harmless enough, but to the been-there-done-that veterans on the team they might be viewed as one step from the motivational posters sold in cheesy stationery stores. (WINNING: It Doesn't Stink.)

Again, that's their problem. Sandberg's problem would be if the extra work and the spiffy signage don't produce better play. There's no guarantee they will. Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect. Sometimes it just makes practice.

On Wednesday night, a first-inning error by Jimmy Rollins on a high hopper gave Milwaukee a free run, and an eighth-inning, two-base error by Ryan Howard, who couldn't corral a medium grounder down the line, opened the way for two more unearned runs as the Brewers scored three times in the inning to turn a tie game into a 7-4 lead.

"That's possibly early-season stuff that we're still in the process of ironing out," Sandberg said. "We definitely need to tighten that up. We work at it. We talk about it. Some of the plays are routine and we need to make the routine plays."

The Phillies have enough other problems to overcome. They have a thin starting rotation at the moment and a very shaky bullpen. They have an offense that hasn't caught fire yet, and might not. If they read the last sign and play the game the right way, however, the Phils have a chance to hang around most nights.

If not, they will get plenty of practice walking up a long hallway that is silent except for its empty slogans.



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