You could see it coming. From inside Citizens Bank Park, the Center City skyline went from hazy to navy to black. The outfield flags at the ballpark started flying toward home plate, which rarely, if ever, happens. Debris started flying through the air, as did warning-track dirt.
And then boom. Ryan Howard stepped away from the plate, looked toward the dugout, and ran for cover.
The wicked storm that halted the Phillies game with the Chicago Cubs for more than an hour on Thursday night had nothing on the recent storm around the team's offensive woes. The Phillies can't hit like they used to. They can't advance runners, can't score runs. They're too old, too broken, too weak to bomb the ball out of the park. They swing at bad pitches. They're pressing.
The sky is falling, right? Well, at about 8:20 Thursday night, it actually was. Probably Mother Nature's way of showing her displeasure with the Phillies' woeful hitting.
Only not everything is end-of-the-world bad. Yes, the Phillies could use a hot righthanded bat, and if the hitting does not improve, or if Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins gets hurt again, or if Domonic Brown goes back into the shell he started in after he got called up, then Ruben Amaro Jr. will have to get Charlie Manuel what he needs. He almost always does.
But look at the National League this season. Scoring is way down. There is much better pitching, including by younger, under-30 talents. Almost everyone has incorporated the cutter into his repertoire. It is a pitch Roy Halladay has always thrown, although never this much, and it is virtually unhittable.
The Phillies' slugging percentage has continued to dip. It was .447 in 2009, then .413 in 2010, and .371 entering the Cubs series. Howard has followed a similar downward arc, from .571 in 2009 to .505 in 2010 and .479 in the first 62 games of this season.
But offensive numbers league-wide are in decline. This season, the league's batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have all dipped. Why? One big reason is the pitching is better. You can speculate what could be another reason.
Consider this: Through June 8 of last year, all teams in baseball were averaging 4.4 runs a game. Through June 8 of this year, that number had fallen precipitously to 4.1. Depending on whether you round the number up, the Phillies are at 4.0 runs per game, just a tick below the league average but right at their sweet spot.
Going into Thursday night's game, the Phillies had scored at least four runs 27 times this season; 24 times they had won. Their .889 winning percentage when scoring four runs was significantly higher than that of the next-closest team. Cleveland is .818 when scoring four or more runs.
Also, while the Phillies are hovering around four runs a game, teams playing against the Phillies are averaging 3.4 runs a game, well below the league average. The Phillies are hard to score against.
So yes, the Phillies are down offensively, but so is the rest of the league. Baseball is not all about the long ball anymore. It is about pitching. And which team has the best pitching? It is not even close.
While Phillies fans fell in love with a team that blasted the ball out of the park, was built for the long ball, was never out of a game no matter the deficit or the inning, that team is no more. There is beauty in this team, and most nights, it is found on the mound. The pitching is nothing short of brilliant, night after night after night after night until insert-his-name-here pitches.
The offense is maddeningly unproductive, and yet the Phillies entered Thursday with the best record in baseball. They're still good. They're just 2011 good.
And good in 2011 isn't as good as it has been in the past, which also is probably contributing to the overall angst about the hitting. Entering Thursday, the Phillies had a 37-25 record, but the .597 winning percentage was the lowest through June 8 since 1963. Last season, Tampa Bay led the majors with a .655 winning percentage through June 8. The 2001 Seattle Mariners had a .797 winning percentage on June 8. In 2006 and 2007, five teams in the majors had at least a .600 winning percentage on June 8.
Understandably, 44-13, the New York Yankees' record on June 8, 1998, sounds a lot better than 37-25, but 37-25 still was good enough to be the best.
That record is just the new best, like the 2011 Phillies are the new Phillies, only with some of the same parts. It should be no surprise. In the offseason, the Phillies exchanged power (Jayson Werth) for pitching (Cliff Lee). They made their choice.
If it ultimately does not work, if the hitting woes continue, the Phillies undoubtedly will pursue another righthanded bat to try to calm the storm.