Pat Gillick sounded a lot like Larry Bowa yesterday, only with a little more polish.
In June 2001, during his second season as the Phillies' manager, Bowa caused a memorable firestorm by saying "the middle of the lineup is killing us."
Gillick, the Phillies' second-year general manager, wasn't as dramatic, but he left little doubt where he believes the root of his team's early-season inconsistency lies.
"To be frank, the cause right now is the middle of the lineup," he said. "Not everybody is doing their job, or playing to their potential, or doing what has to be done on a daily basis.
"The culprit in our situation is the middle of the lineup and the inconsistency in our bullpen."
It was good to hear Gillick make a footnote of the bullpen because he basically assembled the unit, in which manager Charlie Manuel, with an exception or two, clearly has such little faith.
Witness Manuel's decision to let starter Adam Eaton hit with two outs and two on in the seventh inning of a tie game Tuesday night in Arizona. A manager who trusts his bullpen uses a pinch-hitter there - maybe even last season's National League most valuable player.
Manuel did use sore-legged Ryan Howard as a pinch-hitter Wednesday, and Howard delivered a go-ahead grand slam as the Phils beat Arizona to inch their record to 15-19 as they headed home for 10 games starting tonight.
The Phillies are a confounding, feast-or-famine team, and have been for several years. Entering yesterday, they were first in the league in on-base percentage (.358) and third in runs (169). Yet they had stranded 290 runners, by far the most in the league.
Gillick said that if his team could start delivering those runs, it would take pressure off the bullpen, which ranked 13th in the league with a 4.27 ERA.
"The games we played in Atlanta and Arizona, for the most part, our staff pitched pretty well," he said of two recent stops where the Phils went a combined 2-4, scoring no more than three runs in each loss.
"You can't win scoring two or three runs a game," Gillick said. "You've got to score four or five runs to win. That will take the heat off your bullpen, and they'll have some margin of error to work with."
Gillick praised the offense that Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Aaron Rowand had provided. He mentioned that Carlos Ruiz had delivered more than expected and Rod Barajas less than expected.
That left three players unaccounted for - Howard, Pat Burrell and Wes Helms.
"We need productivity from the middle of our order," Gillick said. "What do we have, one home run between Burrell and Helms? Seven total from the three guys? That doesn't cut it."
Howard hit .313 with 58 homers last season. This season, he is hitting .204 with six homers. Burrell, the No. 5 hitter, is hitting .237 and slugging just .330. He has just one homer and 11 RBIs, a stunningly low total given the on-base percentages of some of those hitting ahead of him. Helms, a Gillick recruit and the frequent No. 6 hitter, is batting .290 but has no homers to go with 11 RBIs.
While Gillick pointed the finger at the middle of the lineup - and justifiably so - some fans have begun to point it at him. Despite the problems in the middle of the lineup, Gillick's bullpen could ultimately be this team's Achilles' heel.
Gillick did not sufficiently upgrade the unit in the off-season. The team backed out of a deal with Joe Borowski, who is closing for Cleveland, because of concerns about his shoulder, and acquired two starters, Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, who have been slow to impress. Meanwhile, division rival Atlanta landed two quality bullpen arms in Mike Gonzalez (from Pittsburgh for Adam LaRoche) and Rafael Soriano (from Seattle for Horacio Ramirez).
Gillick said he was aware that he was taking heat from the public - "it goes with the territory" - and rated his performance as "average." He sounded a little defensive when asked about his unsuccessful efforts to land quality bullpen help in the off-season.
"Borowski flunked his physical," Gillick said. "That's not my fault. If the medical people say don't do it, there's nothing we can do. People say, 'Fix the bullpen,' but I don't have a 32-homer guy like LaRoche that's going to get me Gonzalez."
The Phils did make Jon Lieber available this winter, but there was little interest. Now he's in the rotation, having taken the place of Brett Myers, who, out of necessity, is in the bullpen.
Gillick didn't sound optimistic about upgrading the bullpen any time soon.
"Everyone is trying to fix one part of their pitching staff," he said. "The teams that have established guys are not going to weaken their bullpens. You need to hit on something internally or hit on an unexpected source externally. Teams just don't have enough in reserve" to trade relievers.
So what you see is what you get as the Phils open the long homestand.
"We're only 34 games in," Gillick said. "I certainly think our pitching staff has the potential to put together 10 good starts in a row, 10 acceptable starts that will keep us in games. If we do that and our offense picks up, I think we'll get it going."