In the last month or so, a good deal has changed about the Phillies, although much of it is still a matter of perception.
How their rivals view them, how their fans view them, and, perhaps, even how they feel about themselves has been altered during an 11-19 stretch in which the Phils haven't merely endured a downturn of the kind that finds every major-league team, but have suffered through a scoring slump that is unexplainable for a previously record-setting offense.
A large part of the reason may start at the top, where the absence of leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins has removed a good deal of spark from the engine. If he comes back as expected this week, the offense could resolve its problems and return mostly to form. Regardless, the Phillies are going to resume scoring runs at some point, and, really, they already have, averaging nearly six runs a game over the last week.
During the last 30 games, as the Phils dropped out of first place, falling behind both the Mets and the division-leading Braves, the perception has grown that the team might have hit some kind of offensive wall, either because the offensive core is (a) aging, (b) suddenly solvable by opposing pitchers, (c) secretly harboring injuries, or (d) shockingly deprived of knowing what pitch is coming.
As definitive explanations for what has happened, those are all nonsense. There could be a nagging injury or two - there always is - and there could be players whose best days are behind them. Not to reduce that possibility to just one player, but 38-year-old Raul Ibanez, who had 51 runs batted in during the Phils' first 50 games last season, has 73 RBIs in the 189 regular-season games since.
No, the working explanation is that baseball teams go into offensive funks, and good teams, which currently includes the Phillies, come out of them. That has happened for more than a century, and it will happen this season, too.
From the longer point of view, what is more disturbing about the team is what has not changed since the start of the season, and it is what will doom the Phillies if not addressed.
Even if Rollins comes back fully healthy, even if the offense begins to churn out runs as it has for the last two seasons, the Phils don't have a chance to enjoy another deep run through the postseason if their bullpen situation, particularly the closer's role, isn't resolved.
The Phillies did this dance a year ago, although they still made the World Series despite a full season of waiting for Brad Lidge to regain his 2008 form. If you choose to dissect things this way, the opportunity for a repeat championship was lost when Lidge failed to hold a ninth-inning tie in Game 4 against the Yankees. Maybe that's harsh, but not having a reliable bullpen did seem like a significant oversight at the time.
A season later, the Phils find themselves in the same position. Lidge, on the disabled list twice this season, is still inconsistent and the next dependable closer is not on the horizon. With Ryan Madson on the disabled list - and his closer's credentials suspect, anyway - Charlie Manuel has used Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, and others in save situations, with varying degrees of success but equal amounts of trepidation. The conclusion is that the next dependable closer is not currently on the roster.
That was never more evident than in Saturday's come-from-ahead 13-10 loss to Minnesota. Manuel tried to get a four-out save from Contreras, which seemed reasonable since the Phillies had a five-run lead at the time.
But Contreras gave up a two-run home run to Jim Thome and then, less forgivable, walked Nick Punto. Lidge, handed the opportunity for his fifth save of the season, recorded his first blown save instead, throwing a wild pitch, then giving up an RBI single and, one batter later, a game-tying home run. Neither Chad Durbin nor Baez fared much better as they followed Lidge and, taken together, the bullpen's performance in that game was a loud vote of no-confidence for its inhabitants.
So, there's no denying the offensive slump has been a problem. During one incredible 5-11 stretch, the Phillies somehow scored just 29 runs in those 16 games. They have wasted good efforts by the starting pitching and, in the process, masked some of the issues in the bullpen. It's hard to have a blown save in a 4-1 loss.
The slump is merely a distraction, however. The bullpen problem will be what sinks the Phillies unless general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. goes out and finds someone for the closer's role.
It might not seem this way, but the offense will heal itself eventually. It is too good not to. The bullpen is another matter. It might be doing as well as it can right now.