ATLANTA - Fans are frustrated by the dismal fizzle the Phillies' offense has been enduring. Let's be honest, though. Whether they score 20 runs or go 0-for-the-Mets doesn't really change your life. It's a lot of fun when they're doing well, but that doesn't pay the mortgage. Or even get the lawn mowed.

Anybody associated with the team, from game-day employees to club president Dave Montgomery to the publicity-shy ownership group, has to be frustrated as the search for the missing bats drags on with no discernible progress. In the end, though, they all have their own responsibilities. And fixing what ails the lineup isn't part of the job description.

The hitters are assuredly frustrated as their stats plummet and the losses pile up. At the same time, they are in the most enviable position of all. They're the only ones who can actually do something about this epic malaise. They haven't so far. But at least it's in their hands.

In the end, when the Phillies regularly flail and fail and then return to the dugout with their heads down, the weight falls on one person.

"I'm very frustrated," said hitting coach Milt Thompson.

The misery continued in a 7-3 loss to the Braves at Turner Field last night. The Phillies have scored a total of 13 runs in their last 10 games. In their last 14 games, they've scored three or fewer runs an incredible 12 times. The good news was that Ryan Howard homered. The bad news was that it was the first Phillies long ball in 68 innings.

Thompson's task is to help the hitters hit. That part is simple enough. And there's a body of evidence to suggest he's pretty good at it. In his first five seasons in that role, the Phils led the National League in home runs, RBI, runs scored, extra-base hits and total bases.

They were off to a pretty good start this season, too. Then one day, without warning, the power went off. Just like when the lights go out in the middle of a winter snowstorm.

And just like PECO workers scurrying to repair the downed lines, Thompson is doing everything he can think of to make the necessary fixes as quickly as possible. In a game that preaches never getting too high and never getting too low, he admits that he hasn't been able to leave his troubles at the ballpark.

"No, you can't," he said. "I've had a few sleepless nights here, especially in New York [where the Phillies were shut out three straight games by the Mets]. I just couldn't figure that out.

"I can't believe it. I'm trying to stay as calm as possible, but it's starting to wear on me a little bit. I know these guys can hit. I know they can hit. I know what they're capable of doing and to see them go through something like this is agonizing."

It's an agony that is plainly apparent when the television cameras pan the dugout. All Thompson's emotions are clearly etched on his face.

What complicates the issue is that Thompson can break down all the video, can provide advice and counsel, can supply a pat on the back or a kick in the rump as needed. What he can't do is go to the plate and actually swing the bat for them. It has to be a helpless feeling.

After his playing career ended, Hall of Famer Rod Carew worked for a while as a hitting coach for the Angels and Brewers. He received good reviews for his work with young hitters.

Toward the end, though, when he was with Milwaukee, he once spoke eloquently about the unique difficulties of the position. How he would work with his hitters in the cage and they would both be on the same page about the approach that they should be using. How they'd take that into batting practice.

And how, too often, the game started and it seemed as though a collective amnesia would settle in. The hitters wouldn't even try to execute the concepts they worked so hard on. Carew admitted it gnawed at him.

It gnaws at Thompson, too. And if there's one person who can understand what he's going through, it's Charlie Manuel.

To say that the manager loves hitting ain't exactly breaking news. He loves hitting like kids love Santa Claus, totally and without reservation. His eyes light up when the subject comes up. Mention Ted Williams and sit back and listen. Yesterday he worked one-on-one with slumping rightfielder Jayson Werth. He also has firsthand knowledge of how maddening Thompson's tribulations can be after spending 6 years as the Cleveland Indians' hitting coach.

Even that doesn't provide

Thompson with much of an umbrella, though. About 90 minutes before last night's game began, as the Phillies were assembling on the field to begin batting practice, manager and coach approached each other. "We'd better score a bunch of runs," Manuel growled jokingly, a mock threat. "We'd better score some bleeping runs."

Baseball may be a team game. But when a club goes into the tank the way the Phillies have, for as long as the Phillies have, the hitting coach stands alone.

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