A year ago at this time, the Phillies offense was Milt Thompson's problem and, as problems go, it was a whopper with extra mayo.
The Phillies were in the midst of a stretch in which they went 8-17 and scored three or fewer runs 19 times in 25 games. At one point, they went 12 straight games without scoring more than three runs and were shut out five times, including three games in a row by the New York Mets at Citi Field.
By the time the scoring drought ended in the middle of June, the Phillies' five-game lead in the National League East had turned into a 31/2-game deficit, and manager Charlie Manuel's squad had tumbled into third place.
When another scoring drought surfaced in July and the division deficit grew to a season-high seven games, Thompson, the hitting instructor, was fired by Manuel in a move the manager called one of the most difficult of his career.
These days, Thompson is compiling frequent-flier miles working as a minor-league outfield and baserunning instructor for the Houston Astros.
"Our teams are pretty spread out," Thompson said. "We have one in Oklahoma City, one in Corpus Christi [Texas], one in Lexington, Ky., and one out in [Lancaster] California. Right now, I'm in Kissimmee in extended spring training."
Ten months after being fired, Thompson's opinion about losing his job and why the Phillies offense struggled so mightily a year ago has not changed.
"They decided to make a decision, and you have to live with it and move on," Thompson said. "For me, the problems were about a lot of injuries, and we just didn't have our ball club on the field. You can't get rid of 15 guys not doing well, so the coach usually gets blamed for it."
The day he was fired last season, Thompson also pointed to injuries as to why the Phillies' once high-powered offense no longer packed the same punch.
"Our guys have been trying too hard," Thompson said. "I'm not trying to make excuses. We had some successful teams, but every year is not going to be a great year. If you look at our successful years, we did not have a lot of injuries."
Greg Gross, the man who replaced Thompson, has had to field similar questions lately about the offense, which showed signs of life at the end of the last homestand by twice scoring 10 runs in wins over the pitching-challenged Cincinnati Reds.
"It's tough when you're going through an extended streak where they haven't hit well," Gross said. "I honestly can't put my finger on it. It would be one thing if it was lack of effort, but these guys are doing the same thing they've always done."
Finding the exact reason a team stops hitting is impossible to pinpoint, and Thompson's injury theory certainly has validity. The Phillies played long stretches a year ago without Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and also had to navigate stretches without Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino, and Carlos Ruiz.
This season, the Phillies played their first 46 games without Utley and have also had to place Ruiz and Victorino on the disabled list.
In the last two seasons, there has been more pressure than ever on Howard.
"When you don't have the core guys, it can be tough at times," Thompson said. "It's always nice to have a good righthanded bat behind Ryan. They seem to pitch around him a lot more without that."
Combine the injuries with the lack of a productive right-handed bat in run-scoring situations over the last two seasons, and that could explain why this offense is not the same as it once was.
Even though Jayson Werth was here a year ago, he hit .139 with two outs and runners in scoring position and .186 overall with runners in scoring position. So far this season, the Phillies have not had a home run from either Ben Francisco or John Mayberry Jr. with runners in scoring position.
Contrast that to the days when both Pat Burrell and Werth were in the lineup and also when Raul Ibanez was on that monster power tear at the beginning of his Phillies tenure in 2009, and it's easy to figure out why this offense has not been as formidable the last two seasons. Power strikes fear into pitchers, and when there is not as much of it, it is much easier to pitch around.
That puts more pressure on Howard.
"He's the guy who can carry the team," Thompson said. "He's always trying to be the carrier, and when somebody goes out he's trying to get that done. The game is about run production. I know a lot of guys who hit .300 that don't drive in runs, and when Ryan is at his best, he's one of the top players in the game."
Gross said Howard does things properly even when his swing goes south for a little while.
"He's your power guy," he said. "You let him swing. My idea of being patient is not taking. My idea of being patient is when you get that pitch to hit - it might be the first pitch of the at-bat, it might be the third - that's when you want to be aggressive. Going up there and taking is not being patient. Going out there and taking usually puts you in a hole."
With Utley back, Domonic Brown up from triple-A Lehigh Valley, and the switch-hitting Victorino due off the disabled list Friday, the Phillies, barring another injury, will finally have the firepower they anticipated when they arrived at spring training.
If that's the case, we should find out shortly if they still need to add a righthanded bat to the mix.