NEW YORK - The line between quiet confidence and overconfidence is thin. The gap between the refusal to panic at the first signs of adversity and a casual assumption that everything will work out just fine because it always has in the past is treacherous.
This is the uneasy purgatory the Phillies inhabit at the moment.
It's not the losing, exactly, even though they have dropped four straight and six of their last eight. They're still in first place and, besides, it's not even June yet.
It's not the lack of offense, even though they're batting .203 as a team in those games and have been shut out three times and been held to a single run twice. Elite lineups are sometimes going to make mediocre pitchers look like Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson all rolled into one for a while. It happens.
It's something more difficult to define and ultimately more dangerous that's in play after the Phillies again went down meekly to the Mets, 5-0, at Citi Field last night.
And that's why, after resisting the impulse for a few days, manager Charlie Manuel finally shut the clubhouse doors to say a few words to his players.
"He just said to play with some intensity. That's it," centerfielder Shane Victorino said. "It's not about winning and losing. It's about conducting ourselves in the right way. No reaming. No yelling."
This is a team that had five position players leading the All-Star balloting at their positions when the first results were released this week.
That doesn't win games, though.
This is a team that has been to the World Series each of the last two seasons.
That doesn't guarantee a return invitation to the Fall Classic.
Intellectually, everybody in the clubhouse understands this. Sometimes you wonder, though, if they feel it viscerally, deep in their guts. That's why Manuel decided he needed to step in.
The Phillies have had a lot of success lately. Three straight division titles. A world championship. Plenty of exposure in national games on Fox and ESPN. Rich new contracts for many of the stars and plenty of adulation from the string of sellout crowds at Citizens Bank Park. When people are constantly telling you how great you are, a sense that's reinforced every time payday arrives, it's human nature to start believing it.
In that context, the flippant remark made by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. before the game seems pretty pointed. After he observed that the Phillies "stink when it comes to hitting," he was asked if he anticipated a turnaround. He said he hoped so. "They're paid not to stink," he zinged.
Maybe Amaro meant to throw a dart at a $137 million payroll and an entire starting lineup with the exception of Jayson Werth signed beyond this year. Maybe he didn't. But even before last night's dull thud, Manuel talked about how his team had been "outplayed and outhustled" the night before.
Item: The Mets are 7-for-7 in stolen bases the first two games of the series. The Phillies don't even have an attempt. Although falling behind early and not having many baserunners certainly limits the opportunities to run.
The manager had been reluctant to say much to the players. He understands they're playing with some key injuries. By the time last night's snoozer ended, he didn't have much choice. "I wanted to say something and I felt like it was time," he said, explaining his change of heart.
He tried rearranging the bottom of his batting order last night. He left Victorino, Placido Polanco, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Werth in place at the top. They contributed four singles in 20 at-bats. During the skid, they're a combined 32-for-142 (.225). But Manuel has few viable options if he wants to try to shake things up. So he had a short meeting instead.
Maybe this will be the wake-up call, the rude reminder that the difference between the best and worst teams in the major leagues sometimes is more tenacity than talent.
"Every once in a while you get a gut check in this game," said leftfielder Raul Ibanez. "Right now, we're going through a tough time. The important thing is to stay focused and keep playing the game the right way."
No matter what happens in the series finale tonight, the Phillies already have missed out on an opportunity to put a division opponent in its place. The Mets had been struggling going into last weekend. Rumors that manager Jerry Manuel could be fired at any moment were bubbling again. Two wins against the archrival Yankees provided a respite, but the Phillies could have put them right back on their heels. Instead, they're doing the backpedaling.
This lack of killer instinct in the middle of the season isn't new. The Phillies have often whiffed on an opportunity to give themselves a comfortable margin over the last couple of years, only to gel down the stretch and do real damage in the postseason.
Just because it's happened before, though, doesn't mean it will automatically happen again.
The Phillies have accomplished a lot. That does nothing for them today.
Which, apparently, is what Manuel was trying to get across.
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