PITTSBURGH — Do you miss him yet? Do the strikeouts still sting? Does the defense still grate? Does your ideal cleanup hitter still bunt his way on base?
Because three games into the 2012 season, the Phillies sure look like they could use a big piece of the Big Piece.
Like all April observations, this one comes with a caveat. While the Phillies might be under .500 for the first time since 2009, they are no different a team than the one that arrived at spring training. The strengths, weaknesses and question marks have not changed. As you migrated from locker to locker after a 5-4 loss that dropped them to 1-2, the message the same: We know how good we are, there is no need to panic, all of us have endured slow starts before.
All of that is what you expect to hear, what you need to hear, after an opening weekend that saw contenders like the Yankees and the Red Sox remain in first gear. But the only people who can possibly be pleased with the way the Phillies stumbled and bumbled and bunted their way through this three-game series are either masochists or Pirates fans (which, come to think of it, might be one and the same).
What the Phillies produced during their recently completed, and mercifully completed, weekend in East Ohio was not small ball. It was not a pitchers' duel. It was not America's pastime reduced to a pure, organic level.
It was bad baseball, the kind you thought you were watching whenever Ryan Howard swung through a two-strike slider or sent a fastball top-spinning toward the right side of the field. You were a vocal minority from the start. Now, you should be close to extinct. Somewhere in the Delaware Valley, there might be a fan who would have flocked through the turnstiles of Citizens Bank Park to watch the Phillies lay down bunt after bunt like the next run was worth 10. Just know this: that fan would have been sitting alone.
Even Charlie Manuel indicated that he has opened the season operating against his will.
"I'm an offensive guy," the veteran manager said, his decibel level rising for emphasis. "I'm here because I'm an offensive guy. I'm a true believer that you get better because of confidence, and the manager has to show that."
Moments earlier, Manuel had suggested that the emphasis on moving runners instead of driving them in might not be the most effective way to express faith in an offense that is lacking both Howard and usual three-hole hitter Chase Utley.
"We are definitely lacking power considering what we've had in the past," he said. "We've got to play right. I don't want our guys to think that we can't score. Sometimes when we bunt in situations and things like that, it sends a message."
By the end of Sunday's loss, which saw the bullpen blow a 4-1 lead and the Pirates celebrate their second straight walkoff win, Phillies position players had attempted five bunts in three games. Last year, they attempted 42 in 162 games. The trouble with executing this brand of baseball lies in the way the Phillies are constructed. The hitters best equipped to move runners are the same ones who are best equipped to drive them in and reach base.
Two of the series' most pivotal moments occurred when one of the Phillies' most accomplished hitters used the first out of the inning to bunt runners over. In Saturday's 2-1 loss, Jimmy Rollins did so on his own, likely believing he could reach first safely while moving men to second and third. Sunday, Shane Victorino used the first out of the sixth inning to move Juan Pierre from second after the speedy outfielder had bunted for a single and advanced on a throwing error.
Until this season, both situations would have enabled Howard to get to the plate with runners in scoring position, a scenario that has always seen him thrive. That's the irony in all of the talk we have heard since that October night when a routine groundout ended the Phillies' season and left the centerpiece of their lineup writhing in the dirt with a ruptured Achilles'. They are attempting to replace Howard by playing a style that only works if you have hitters like Howard waiting on deck to drive runners home.
The good news is that they acquired one such hitter last July. On Saturday, Hunter Pence followed Rollins' bunt with an infield single that scored a run. Sunday, he hit an RBI double and a home run. But behind the interim cleanup hitter is plenty of doubt.
After Pence's infield single on Saturday left runners at the corners with one out, Laynce Nix struck out and John Mayberry Jr. flied out to cap the scoring at one. Sunday, Rollins followed Victorino's sixth-inning bunt with a strikeout, and the Pirates intentionally walked Pence to get to Jim Thome, who struck out to strand the runner on second.
This was less of an Easter Sunday resurrection than it was a medieval man popping up from a cart full of bodies to prove that he still has a pulse.
"I think everyone in baseball knows we have a very, very good club," said Thome, who went 0-for-3 in his first start at first base. "Any time you play the first series, everything is always magnified."
No, they are not dead yet. But with a three-game set against the much-improved Marlins starting today, the Phillies' lineup still has not proved that it is close to being alive and well.
Contact David Murphy at email@example.com.
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