NEW YORK - What next?
The question had to be on the minds of anybody who took an at-bat for the Phillies last night. There was Luis Castillo robbing Chase Utley of a base hit in the fourth inning, Angel Pagan robbing Carlos Ruiz of extra bases in the seventh, groundball after groundball hit at the worst possible fielder at the worst possible time.
Sometimes, when a team is struggling at the plate, lady luck intervenes. Last night was not one of those times. Once again, the Phillies lost. Once again, they were shut out. Once again, they had no explanation other than one they have offered up throughout this tortuous week.
That's baseball, is what they say.
But the Phillies' offensive struggles are quickly reaching territory that is rare even when considering the fickle nature of the game.
Their third straight shutout loss, 3-0, at the hands of the Mets at Citi Field, tied a franchise record for consecutive shutouts.
The last time it happened was in 1983, when the Phillies advanced to the World Series.
That is about the extent of the good news.
The last major league team to get shut out three times in a row was the Dodgers from Aug. 5-8, 2007, against the Diamondbacks and the Reds, followed closely by the Braves, who were shut out by the Red Sox and Tigers from June 19-22 of that same season.
The last team to fail to score a run in a three-game series was the Royals, who were outscored by the Twins 25-0 from July 5-7 in 2004.
Since 1920, no major league team has been shut out more than four consecutive times. Eight different teams have achieved that feat, most recently the 1992 Chicago Cubs.
"Ain't a lot to say," was how manager Charlie Manuel summed it up. "Tonight, we were hustling, we were talking the whole game. We were very upbeat."
But the results didn't show it. The Phillies will get a chance to end the drought tonight against Marlins righthander Chris Volstad, whom they have hit well in the past.
But it will be tough to erase the memories of one of their worst three-game stretches against the Mets in the history of the heated rivalry.
Not only did they fail to score, but they allowed a team that a week ago looked dead in the water to climb to within two games of the division lead. Suddenly, the Mets have won five of their last six, all of them against the two participants in last year's World Series.
"We're going to hit. If you think we're a great hitting team, fine. That's good. Watch the game. That's all I can say," Manuel said. "Right now we're not hitting the ball, and the balls that we're hitting are getting caught. That's what baseball is. We're going to come out of it. We can hit. We've hit some of the greatest pitchers in baseball. We're going to come out of it.
"That's all I've got to tell you. When? I don't know. If I had my way we would have come out of it tonight. Also if I had my way we never would've gotten into the little rut we're in right now."
If ever there was a series that could give a team sustainable life, it was this. Struggling leadoff hitter Jose Reyes has suddenly strung together five straight multihit games, including a 3-for-4, two-RBI performance last night that capped off a series in which he went 10-for-18 with five runs and five RBI.
Before the game, which was delayed nearly 2 hours by rain, hitting coach Milt Thompson and Manuel both stressed the point that May is no time to panic. And they are correct. As ugly as three shutouts may look, the Phillies have endured similar offensive struggles in each of the last two seasons, at roughly the same juncture.
The strength of this team has been its ability to shake out of its rough stretches like a dog shakes off water. The key this time will be rebounding quickly enough to avoid doling out any more doses of momentum to their National League East rivals. The Marlins enter tonight's start of a three-game series within striking distance, having entered yesterday four games back. The Braves, whom the Phils face in a three-game series that starts Monday, entered yesterday trailing by just 2 1/2 games.
The one bright spot was the performance of lefthander Cole Hamels, who held the Mets to one run in his first six innings of work. He was charged with three runs, two of them earned, in 6 1/3 innings, lowering his ERA to 3.82.
But it is opposing pitchers who pose the biggest concern at this point.
"I think we just need to believe in ourselves. We're a very good team with very good players," Hamels said. "We're going to pull out of it, and when we do, it's going to be tough for the other team."
The Phillies had runners at the corners with one out in the third inning when Placido Polanco grounded into a doubleplay. Doubleplays also ended the fourth and fifth innings.
In the seventh, Raul Ibanez hit a one-out single, only to be caught stealing. In the sixth, the Phillies had men on first and second with one out and the heart of the order up, but Utley flew out to centerfield and Ryan Howard grounded out.
It was par for the course. In an 8-0 loss on Tuesday, they put 14 runners on base. In a 5-0 loss on Wednesday, they put seven on. And last night, nine Phillies reached base.
But none of them scored.
"Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you," Manuel said. "Panicking ain't going to do no good."
Counting a shutout loss to Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox on Saturday, and the eight innings of scoreless baseball they logged against Tim Wakefield on Sunday before scoring three in the ninth, the Phillies have failed to score in 44 of their previous 45 innings.
They can only hope it ends tonight.