WASHINGTON - On a Phillies roster packed with electric personalities and burgeoning celebrities, Joe Blanton is the Phillies' silent stopper. His quiet effectiveness provides balance for this high-profile team, who can almost always rely on him for a solid game.
But in a month when everything seems to be souring for the Phils, Blanton last night became the latest player to suffer a sharp downturn. At the conclusion of this forgettable road trip against the dregs of the league, the righthander endured his worst start of the year, allowing eight runs in 42/3 innings in an 8-7 loss to Washington at Nationals Park.
Matt Stairs' ninth-inning grand slam, his first hit since July 11, provided a late lift and nearly instigated a comeback. But with the tying run on third, Ryan Howard grounded into a game-ending double play. Despite the interesting conclusion, the Phils went 2-5 on the trip against Houston and Washington, and now limp home with many concerns.
After the game, manager Charlie Manuel made clear that the ninth inning did not erase any deeper issues. He was more interested in discussing the Phillies' poor play against bad clubs.
"We've been getting outplayed by second-division teams," he said. "We're definitely not tight. We're playing right to the beat of who we're playing. We're playing right with them."
Making clear that he was unimpressed by the effort despite the comeback, Manuel continued: "Stairs' grand slam actually made the game look real good, but we haven't hit for a couple of weeks."
The causes of this September swoon are many. The lineup is struggling, and the rotation seems suddenly more vulnerable than it did in August. Nearly every member of the bullpen that guided the Phillies toward a championship last year is bothered by one injury or another, and three pitchers are vying for the job of playoff closer. The talented top three batters in the lineup, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Chase Utley, have been invisible this month.
Usually, Blanton is the soother of whatever ails the Phillies at the time of his start. Since May, the Phils could rely on a quality start in nearly every outing from the low-key stopper.
Since allowing five runs May 21 in a win at Cincinnati, Blanton had allowed three earned runs or fewer in 17 of 18 starts. The lone exception was a four-run outing.
But after allowing two runs in the third inning and one in the fourth last night, Blanton suffered a complete collapse the next inning. The fifth began with a Willie Harris double. Jayson Werth dashed to snag the ball in right field, but it popped out of his glove. The official scorer ruled it a two-base hit.
Blanton then got two quick outs, and was nearly out of the inning before his night collapsed. Adam Dunn clocked a two-run homer, Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes walked, and Ian Desmond followed with his first major-league home run. With Washington leading by 8-2, the pitcher was done.
"You don't locate pitches, walk guys, try to throw strikes and they're down the middle, hang your off-speed pitches - a combo of all of them, that's what happened," Blanton said.
What happened to the Phils on this trip was more complex, and left Manuel agitated.
"We just kind of play right along. We don't really come out and get people," he said. "Yeah, I do see some difference in them [since last season]. The difference is we've got to get after it more."