WHEN THE NEWS came out last week that a strained groin would prevent Roy Halladay from making his scheduled start last night, the Phillies thought they were catching a break. Instead, they caught Scott Richmond, a heretofore unknown righthander who spent the majority of the evening mowing them down, striking out 11 in eight innings while leading the Blue Jays to a 7-1 victory.
As good as this Phillies lineup has been over the past year, one of its idiosyncrasies is the sometimes-baffling manner in which it struggles against pitchers who might kindly be labeled middle-of-the-road. Manager Charlie Manuel mentioned the characteristic in a meeting with reporters late last week, with a date against tough Red Sox righthander Josh Beckett looming. And, sure enough, since touching Beckett for seven runs and 11 hits in six innings of an 11-6 win Sunday, the Phillies have managed just four runs on 11 hits while striking out 20 times against Toronto starters Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond.
Last night at Citizens Bank Park, the offensive highlights were relegated to a solo home run by Jayson Werth in the fourth inning, his second in as many nights and third in four games. By that time, Toronto already had scored four runs off Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyer, three of them in the first inning on RBI by Aaron Hill, Scott Rolen and Alex Rios. Former Phillie and current Blue Jays catcher Rod Barajas hit a solo home run in the second to extend the lead to 4-0.
"After that," Manuel said, "it looked like it kind of knocked the life out of us."
Moyer (4-6, 6.35) eventually would settle down, holding the deficit to 4-1 until the seventh, when Hill hit a two-run homer that knocked him from the game.
But the Phillies did not mount a serious offensive threat until the ninth inning, when Toronto reliever Brandon League retired Werth and Pedro Feliz with the bases loaded and a six-run lead.
And, by that point, most of the near-sellout crowd already had disappeared into a night that featured intermittent rain and a rolled-up tarp sitting ominously on the third-base side of the field.
In the end, the Phillies could have used a healthy rain delay, if only to knock Richmond out of the game and bring on someone less resembling Walter Johnson. Or, the way Manuel looks at it, somebody whom the Phillies would not make to look like Walter Johnson.
"We didn't have a lot of what I call quality at-bats," Manuel said.
But Richmond did throw well, utilizing a curveball that routinely kept hitters off balance, including one early in the game that dropped out of the zone and caused Raul Ibanez to huff in frustration as he held on for dear life to a swing that already had gone around.
The numbers suggested that the Phillies had a good matchup against Richmond. The 29-year-old Vancouver native had allowed all nine of his home runs this season to lefthanded hitters, and lefties were hitting a robust .289 against him (compared with a .173 average against righties). So, of course, three of the Phillies' five hits off him came from righthanders, including Werth's home run.
"He did a pretty good job of slowing his breaking ball," said second baseman Chase Utley, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. "He threw strikes. He was making it look just good enough to swing at."
As a result, the Phillies fell to 36-27, with losses in four of their last five games, all at home. And, of course, the defeat touched off the latest round of questions about a home record that sits at 13-18. For the record, the consensus inside the Phillies' clubhouse is that their struggles at Citizens Bank Park are not a matter of the fans booing too softly, or cheering too loudly, or the childlike giddiness that overwhelms them whenever they scamper out onto the field in front of the hometown faithful. It is just baseball being baseball.
"It's baseball," said Moyer, who was charged with six runs on 10 hits in six innings. "Baseball is strange. You could go to the second half and have the best home record and the worst road record. There's no way to figure. If we were trying to do it, I'd tell you we were trying to do it. But we're not." *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.