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Slump baffles Phillies and brass alike

The 2010 Phillies have sprung a leak. While Charlie Manuel desperately seeks a containment strategy for the bad baseball that has gushed forth these last few weeks, threatening to pollute both his team's season and this city's expectations, experts everywhere are trying to determine just how this unnatural disaster unfolded.

Charlie Manuel has been frustrated with the recent Phillies slump. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)
Charlie Manuel has been frustrated with the recent Phillies slump. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)Read more

The 2010 Phillies have sprung a leak.

While Charlie Manuel desperately seeks a containment strategy for the bad baseball that has gushed forth these last few weeks, threatening to pollute both his team's season and this city's expectations, experts everywhere are trying to determine just how this unnatural disaster unfolded.

As if crippled by some beneath-the-surface malfunction, a Phillies team renowned for its "Drill, Baby, Drill" lineup mysteriously turned powerless over the last two weeks. The theories, though not the runs and hits, have come in bunches:

It's the injuries. Without Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco at the top, the lineup has lost its way.

It's the energy. Without Rollins, the team lacks a spark.

It's Chase Utley. The second baseman is prematurely experiencing one of his familiar end-of-the-season fades. Is he hurt?

It's the pressure. The worse they play, the harder they try, the more they fail.

It's the bench. The injuries have exposed their subs' shortcomings.

There are dozens more reasons, ranging from post-knuckleball paralysis to a post-contract letdown by Ryan Howard to the fallout from last month's sign-stealing accusations.

Whatever its origins, this slump, during which the Phillies scored just 11 runs on their recent 2-7 road trip, dropping from second to 11th in the league in runs scored, is so profound that even general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had to admit he'd never seen anything like it.

"Not to this degree," Amaro said this week. "This is as bad as it's gotten from what I've seen. Especially with the talent level. But stuff happens. These are human beings. They're not robots."

The trouble is, since the middle of May, when they appeared to be cruising toward 100 victories and a franchise-first fourth straight division title, the Phillies frequently have looked like robots.

Game after game, they fall behind early, then freeze offensively. Strikeouts. Pop-ups. Rare baserunners erased by double plays. So lifeless do they appear that, though they insist the opposite is true, it sometimes looks as if they've raised a white flag.

While Manuel has tried to enliven his deflated team - with a meeting in New York, an ejection in Atlanta, a demand that they turn off the clubhouse TV before a game with the Braves - the players themselves seem to be reacting meekly to their fate.

And it's not just fans who have noticed. Rollins, watching on TV as he recuperates again from a strained calf, indicated his teammates' struggles had been frustrating.

"I want to jump through the TV sometimes and kick them in the face," Rollins said this week, "and, you know, go, 'C'mon, guys! Let's go!'"

Getting into a rut. A near-euphoric feeling surrounded the Phillies after they'd finished thumping the Pittsburgh Pirates, 12-2, on May 17 at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phils had the National League's best record (24-13). They led second-place Florida by five games and last-place Atlanta by 61/2. Rollins' return from the DL that night sparked yet another offensive outburst. He had two hits, leadoff man Shane Victorino scored three runs, Jayson Werth hit a three-run homer, Howard a grand slam. The lineup's top five hitters went 10 for 22 with 10 runs and 11 RBIs. With the decent pitching they were getting, Philadelphia looked unstoppable.

"That's a lineup," said Pirates manager John Russell, "that you don't want to see too often."

And then, as quickly as Howard's ninth career grand slam had left the park, the offense disappeared.

Two pedestrian starters, Pittsburgh's Zach Duke and Chicago's Tom Gorzelanny, limited them to one run each in consecutive losses. When the Red Sox came to town that weekend, the Phils were nearly no-hit by Daisuke Matsuzaka and were baffled by knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. A series against the New York Mets, in which the Phillies failed to score in 27 innings, was historically bad. The Phils took two of three in Florida, but only because Roy Halladay's perfection transformed one unearned run into a victory. And in Atlanta, they again were swept, what little offense they could muster essentially meaningless.

By the time the Phils arrived back home Wednesday night - 11th in runs, 11th in RBIs, 11th in walks, 15th in stolen bases - club officials were wide-eyed with disbelief.

"My father used to say that a team is never as good as it looks when it's going good," team chairman Bill Giles told elderly fans at a Phillies Alumni Luncheon on Thursday, "and it's never as bad as it looks when it's going bad.

"Well, I hope to hell we're not as bad as we look now."

Here's what Amaro, Giles, and other Phils executives had to say about some of the more prevalent theories:

Injuries and the lineup. Pat Gillick, senior adviser to the president/general manager, was being diplomatic, baseball-style, when he said that "you really can't blame the performance of the club on injuries because all the teams in the league have injuries."

And it's true that when Rollins - and for a few games, Polanco - missed time early, the offense barely sputtered.

But by now it seems clear that without those two in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, the lineup's chemistry has been adversely affected. "I've always believed that the first five guys in your lineup have to fit a particular type of hitting," Giles said. "Although J-Roll's not the perfect leadoff hitter, he still does a lot of things. Then Polanco is the perfect two-hole hitter, Utley is the perfect three, Howard is the perfect four, and Werth five. It all works with those five guys. But two of them aren't there, and the other three are in a slump."

Amaro said the shortcomings their absence exposed took time to be revealed.

"I think you can see that over the long haul that has affected us in a negative way," Amaro said. "We've had to put guys in different spots. We put Victorino in the leadoff spot, and he's gone hot and cold there. Charlie had to be creative with the lineup to try to jump-start things. But you know when you're missing your pieces . . . it's hard to get a consistent flow."

A lack of energy. "Whenever you're not hitting, it reduces the energy in the clubhouse and on the field," Amaro said. "Obviously, you play with a lot more energy when you've got baserunners on, and you're driving in runs, and guys are moving around the bases. Jimmy is an energy player, and he's an important element to our club. People have been saying so long that 'Jimmy's not really a leadoff guy.' Well, the fact of the matter is over the last several years he's as good a leadoff guy as there is."

Those who remember the Phils' 1980 championship recall that that fractious team took off late, after manager Dallas Green blistered the players at a closed-door meeting. Many want to see similar emotion from Manuel.

"Charlie has been very supportive of his players and rightfully so," said Green, now a senior adviser to the general manager. "He goes one-on-one with them and prefers to make his points known face-to-face. I have no doubt that's already been done. . . . But at some point he might give one of those talks that scrapes the paint from the walls."

What's wrong with Utley? "He's perfectly healthy," Amaro said when asked if Utley, whose average was down to .270 entering the weekend series with San Diego, was physically OK.

"Chase has been struggling mightily, and he'd be the first to tell you. He hasn't produced, especially as of late," the GM added. "But it's probably a product of trying to do too much and having things snowball. But he's human. At some point, Chase will start swinging the bat and driving in runs for us like we know he can."

One thing that has hurt Utley recently has been his proclivity to ground balls right to overshifted infielders, especially those stationed behind second base.

"Some teams are doing the shift on him," Amaro said. "But Chase works very hard in BP and works on using the whole field. He's just in a funk right now. He'll get out of it sometime, and when he does he'll be carrying us."

The bench. Manuel's bench has underachieved this season. Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs, and Ross Gload are a combined 9 for 57 as pinch-hitters. When Manuel stuck them in his lineups, either out of necessity or to rest regulars, they haven't done much better.

"A guy like Francisco was on the bench for a long time without having to do anything and now they're asking him to do some things," Amaro said. "It's hard to make an assessment on some of [the bench players].

"Frankly, I'm really pleased with how Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro have played. We did not sign them to be everyday players. They were signed to try to hold the fort down in case we had some injuries. And I think generally they've done a pretty good job. You can't expect them to hit .300 and play like Gold Glove infielders."

The slump's building pressure. "Usually when a team gets into a slump, you see one or two players who are still hitting," Gillick said. "But we've had a number of players who really haven't hit up to what they're capable of.

"And sometimes when that happens, players start to press a little bit. And when you do press, you don't do things naturally. . . . But this team has got a good makeup. Not too high and not too low. They keep things in perspective."

Charlie Manuel. The manager, so far, has avoided any blame for his team's struggles, the residue of two straight World Series appearances.

"Charlie's been all right," Amaro said. "I'm sure he's had some frustration level and a little disbelief just like everybody else because this isn't us, this isn't typical of the way we play.

"But I think Charlie has been a little more proactive with hitters, talking to them a little more, trying to encourage them a little more. That's what we need to do. Continue to work and encourage and get this thing turned around."

Green, who always had difficulty with patience, suggested the best thing the Phils' manager could do was remain patient.

"When hitters slump like this there's not really much you can do except have patience," he said. "It's early enough in the season that we know they'll snap out of it. This is still a very good baseball team, and they'll figure it out. They've proven that in the past. History is on their side. Best thing he can do is have patience. He can't change the lineup that much. There's very little you can do as a manager except put the guys out there and let them keep swinging."