Like those beleaguered folks in the airline commercials caught in the grips of embarrassing situations, the Phillies yesterday boarded a flight to Chicago with the catchphrase "Want to get away?" practically stamped on their foreheads.
Embarrassment was the predominant feeling among the Phillies and their manager after Sunday's 12-3 loss to Florida. Deservedly so: The Phillies had just spent 31/2 hours in stifling humidity at Citizens Bank Park putting forth perhaps their sloppiest effort of the season.
The breakdowns during their eighth loss in 11 games covered every aspect. The only question: Which was worst: the pitching, hitting, fielding, or lack of composure?
"I felt like we lost our composure and did some things we normally don't do, and we didn't play like we usually play. We are better than that," manager Charlie Manuel said after addressing the team for about 20 minutes following the game.
"He was embarrassed by the way we played," said Shane Victorino, who was the poster boy for lost composure when he charged in from center field to confront Ed Rapuano after the home-plate umpire ejected him. "A lot of the guys in here were embarrassed."
Regardless, it was a season low point for the Phillies, and if they are intent on successfully defending their World Series championship, they will take it as a sober reminder that plenty of time remains for them to squander their lead in the NL East, which was reduced from seven to four games as the second-place Marlins swept them.
"You can have a seven- or eight-game lead with 55 games to go and be caught," Manuel said.
The most persistent problem in the Phillies' recent slide is the lack of power and timely hitting. The engine room of their prolific lineup, which still leads the National League with 150 homers, consists of the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters. But Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez are in homer droughts. Utley hasn't homered in nine games, and Howard and Ibanez have each gone 12 games without hitting one out of a ballpark.
In the last nine games, Utley, Howard and Ibanez went 20 for 99 (.202) with no homers, four RBIs, and six extra-base hits. As a team, the Phillies are 17 for their last 107 (.159) with runners in scoring position.
"We're either striding too quick, or we're getting out on the front side or swinging at bad balls. There are reasons why," Manuel said. "But at the same time, that's baseball, and you've got to play through it."
It won't be easy for the Phillies to find their strokes in the six-game road trip that begins tonight against the Cubs and continues with a weekend series vs. Atlanta. The Cubs are in a heated race with St. Louis in the NL Central, and the Braves just took three of four from the Dodgers to pull within 41/2 games of the Phillies. Atlanta, which has been getting quality pitching, has two games with the Nationals before the Phillies visit.
The Cubs will go with Rich Harden tonight. The righthander has allowed only six earned runs in his last 30 innings, covering five games, for a 1.80 ERA.
For what it's worth, the Phillies are in a better position than they were this time last season. A year ago today, they began a string of five losses in six games and went from two games up in the NL East to two games behind. Then they went 10-4 the rest of August and took off in September.
"That's the Phillies way of doing it," Victorino said. "Let everybody get close and put our backs against the wall and say, 'All right, it's time to play.' I don't know why it happens that way."