By FRANK WARD
If there were a red panic button in the Phillies dugout, manager Charlie Manuel may have smacked the crap out of it last night. How else do you explain benching your one, three and four hitters in the fourth inning of a game? How else do you explain sitting three all-stars?
Granted, the 12-0 score probably had a lot to do with it. However, benching three guys gives the appearance of trying to send a message. Last week, the last skipper to win a championship in this city was critical of his players’ nanchalant attitudes before a game; they were watching a movie in the clubhouse.
Manuel has always been seen as a players manager who will do what it takes to protect his guys. He’s clearly not doing that now. Not with benching Jayson Werth the last couple weeks; not with saying Werth may be affected by his pending free agent status; not by calling out players preparation; not by pulling a third of your lineup in Boston.
The question now becomes, should the Phillies fans join Manuel and hit the red button?
To be clear, the last three weeks have flat out sucked in the Land of Red Pinstripes. A team built to outscore teams has managed to cross home plate just 41 times in its last 18 games, a paltry 2.3 runs-per-game average. They’ve failed to score more than three runs in 15 of those games, and been shut out six times.
That just isn’t going to get the job done. Some say the Werths of the lineup are pressing and trying too hard. Well, they’ve done that when most of the media attention has been on the Flyers run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Now that Michael Leighton has found the puck in the net behind him, the Phillies are really going to be under the microscope. Oh, and the fact that they sit in third place behind the Braves and the friggin’ Mets won’t help matters.
To panic or not to panic? That is the question.
REASONS TO PANIC
Jimmy Rollins: The shortstop’s .341 average and other offensive numbers aren’t the problem. Neither is his defense. The issue here is his calf. He’s played a total of 11 games this year and is trying to wrap up his second stint on the DL. He is the Phillies motor; as he goes, the Phils go. It’s not a coincidence that the Phillies offensive ineptness started the night after Rollins reaggravated his calf injury. The team averages nearly three runs a game less without their sparkplug. If Rollins can’t get that injury completely healed, this offense will continue to suffer.
Chase Utley: I’m likely going to be dodging rocks from the women who see me in the streets after putting Utley in this category. His work ethic and baseball prowess aren’t being questioned. Like Rollins, his health is something to look at. A .260 average this season? That’s not Utley. We all know it. An injury can be the only explanation for his struggles at the plate. Just remember, in 2008 Utley started red hot and tailed off big time. The Phils did not win a World Series due to their offense that year. After the parade down Broad, we learned Utley needed hip surgery. To be clear, an injured Utley is better than anything else the Phils could put out there, but don’t be surprised to learn of an injury at some point.
Shane Victorino: The Flyin’ Hawaiian has ten homers and 36 RBI so far this year. He also has 32 strikeouts. OK, so why does a guy who is tied for the team lead in HRs with Ryan Howard, Werth and Utley in this category? Power numbers aren’t his game. He has already matched his HR total from last year, and is just four away from his career high of 14 in 2008. He is already more than halfway to his career high of 62 RBI from last year. Meanwhile, since becoming an everyday player in 2006, Victorino has not hit below .281 for a season. He hit better than .290 the last two years. Right now he’s hitting .263. The man needs to get back to slapping singles and doubles in the gaps.
Rauuuul Ibanez: Was Ibanez as good as his torrid start to the 2009 season? No. However, a .242 average with three long balls? That doesn’t come close to cutting it. If the $12-million man doesn’t get his bat going, he needs to sit the bench and John Mayberry needs to be given a chance to platoon with him. Every year, Ibanez seems to have a 55-game tear. So, while we can’t give up hope on him just yet, the fact that he is hitting this bad is a cause for concern.
Joe Blanton: A 1-4 record with a 6.07 ERA from a guy who was to be your solid No. 3 starter has to make you lose sleep at night. I’m sure the fact that some people will always say, “there’s Cliff Lee’s money,” whether or not it’s accurate, has to be weighing on the organization, if not Blanton himself. The fact is, this man is an innings eater who pitched well the last two years. If he can’t get himself straight, and soon, the Phils rotation is taking a huge hit and Pedro Martinez may yet find himself back in The City of Brotherly Love.
Danys Baez: A 4.50 ERA and a 13-12 walk-to-strikeout ratio doesn’t cut it for a guy thought to be a solid addition to your suspect bullpen. He just seems to give up the wrong hit at the wrong time. Can’t have that.
The Phillies bench: Wilson Valdez has been OK filling in for Juan castro and Jimmy Rollins. But Ross Gload and Greg Dobbs aren’t getting the job done. The Phils need to call up a John Mayberry or make a trade to address the bench play.
REASONS NOT TO PANIC
Ryan Howard: Granted, 10 homers for the $25 million man at this point in the season may cause you to want to worry. Don’t. He is hitting .291, the highest of his career since his 2006 MVP year. As far as his power numbers, this guy usually doesn’t heat up until the summer temperatures do. At the end of the day, he’ll still have 40 HRs and be a part of the MVP talk. Don’t worry about the big man.
Placido Polanco: The professional hitter continues to impress at the plate. The Phillies, for the most part, have been better at the plate since Polanco himself returned from a DL stint. He’ll hit better than .300, hit some long balls and score runs. Combine him with Rollins at the top of the order and you could see the Phils lineup explode again real soon.
Jayson Werth He is mired in a terrible slump. He will break out of it and soon. He’s not a 40 HR guy, nor is he a .355 hitter. Finishing the season with a .280 average and 25-30 HRs is the player Werth is. He’ll bounce back and end the season with those numbers and help force pitchers to throw hittable balls to Howard. The Phillies will still need to PayDaMan at season’s end.
Starting Rotation: Halladay is Halladay. Cole Hamles has bounced back quietly, not allowing a big-run performance in about seven games. JA Happ will be fresh when he returns from the DL and be fresh down the stretch. For playoff purposes, you just need Blanton, Jamie Moyer or Kyle Kendrick to step up their game as the fourth guy. The thought here is that the combination of Moyer and Kendrick gets the job done.
Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge: Contreras is a very flexible pitcher who can toss the eighth inning or throw a couple innings of long relief. Lidge, if he continues to pitch the way he has, could very well be back to his 2008 form. He just needs to stay healthy.
Charlie Manuel: The skipper has a way of getting the most from his players. He will get this thing turned around. remember, in 2008 he kicked the crap out of a water cooler, sparking the Phillies to reel off a nice win streak. They ended that season on Broad Street. Forget the appearance that he may be alienating players with his public comments. If he’s doing that, it means he’s tried everything else and the players know that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
To panic or not to panic? Just remember, “the play’s the thing.”
How this team plays on the field between now and the All-Star break ultimately will tell us whether or not to reach for the red button. As it stands, if Rollins comes back healthy this lineup will score runs. And, with the way the pitchers have performed recently, that’s all it’ll take to surpass the Mets and Braves in the NL East.
Remember, this team was the best in the NL as recently as two weeks ago. You don’t go from being that good to this bad overnight. They will turn it around as the sweltering summer nights infiltrate South Philly.
For now, sit back in the recliner and reach for the Coronas instead of the red panic button.