Every day, Charlie Manuel has the best seat in the house for the worst show in sports.
From his perch in the dugout, the manager watched the Phillies spray five singles around hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park Sunday afternoon. They were shut out, meaning they scored a total of five runs in a three-game series against the Texas Rangers - and still managed to win two games.
Honestly, if Ruben Amaro Jr. had called up the entire single-A Lakewood lineup and let it face Rangers lefthander Matt Harrison, it almost certainly would have done better than J-Roll, Ryan, Rauuuuuuul and the guys.
"We're going to hit better," Manuel said after enduring this latest listless outing along with another benumbed sellout crowd. "We're going to bottom out one of these days. Hopefully it was today."
On Monday, the cavalry arrives in the form of Mr. Chase Utley. It would be folly to expect the second baseman to turn this offense back into its 2008 form all by himself. Even at his best, Utley has been prone to the same kinds of slumps and hot streaks as the rest of this core group of players. And we're a long way from knowing whether he'll ever be at his best again, or whether this knee injury is going to flare up periodically and slow him down.
But at least, starting now, we're going to get a look at the team Amaro had in mind when he made his offseason calculations to overload with starting pitching and let Jayson Werth walk. We haven't seen that team yet, and still the Phillies are in first place in the National League East. That is a testament to the excellence of that pitching and to the team's trusty knack for doing just enough to stay on track for October baseball.
In a sense, the Phillies are victims of their own success. Just a few years ago, the very idea of a first-place team was novel and thrilling. One of the great stories in this city's sports history was the transformation of this franchise from laughingstock loser into perennial winner. Not so long ago, these same players (mostly) won us over with clutch hits, late rallies and a never-out-of-it approach to the game.
It was a heady time. There was the 2008 World Series, then the parade, then the return trip to the Series in '09. There were the additions of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. There was a winter spent yearning for baseball season more keenly and with more optimism than at any time in Philadelphia history.
So it has been especially grueling to watch this team pump out five hits a game, especially dispiriting to see it go quietly in the eighth and ninth innings of close games. It is downright painful to see terrific pitching performances wasted, as Oswalt's was Sunday. The record is good but the buzz has worn off.
Throughout the malaise, the ballpark has been packed. Fans have been willing to endure the weeks of Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez and Pete Orr in order to get to the months of Utley, Shane Victorino and Domonic Brown. With Brown up at last and Utley returning Monday, the team is finally close to being whole.
This may be the last thing anyone wants to hear, but a little more patience is in order.
Give it a month. Let Utley find his swing and let him and Manuel find the right balance of playing time and rest. Let Manuel ease Brown into the role of everyday player the way he once did with Howard and Werth. Let the 23-year-old Brown get comfortable at the plate.
Give it a month. Give it six weeks. That doesn't mean the Phillies can survive on a diet of five singles and one or two runs for that long. It just means it would be a mistake to expect Utley to play at an all-star level immediately after a handful of minor-league at-bats, or to place stifling expectations on Brown.
The timing here is actually pretty good for the Phillies. By the end of June, they should start to have an idea whether their full lineup is good enough to win it all. Can Utley, Howard, Rollins and someone - Brown? Raul Ibanez? Ben Francisco? - take turns being the hot bat? That's how this team's offense has gone the last few years.
If not, if Utley's knee does not hold up, or if Brown really fizzles for a while, or if Ibanez and Francisco continue to be easy outs, then Amaro will have all of July to address the problem before the trade deadline.
The pitching has prevented the bottom from falling out, even if the offense hasn't bottomed out yet. Yes, things could be worse, but they still have to get better.