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Mike Missanelli: Getting the Phils out of their malaise

What once was pure, pleasurable Americana has turned into extreme angst - the clean smells of a bright ballpark replaced by occasional boos and disgusted early exits.

Shane Victorino reacts after striking out in the fifth inning on Saturday against the Padres. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Shane Victorino reacts after striking out in the fifth inning on Saturday against the Padres. (Alex Brandon/AP)Read more

What once was pure, pleasurable Americana has turned into extreme angst - the clean smells of a bright ballpark replaced by occasional boos and disgusted early exits.

The Phillies are at the bottom of the National League East, and fans are dazed and confused. I know that from the e-mails suggesting desperate trades to fix what ails their favorite team.

"Would the Yankees give us Curtis Granderson for Cole Hamels, if we also throw in Placido Polanco?" a guy wrote me the other day. Er . . . no.

"How about Hamels for Josh Hamilton?" Ah . . . don't think so.

The Phils are straddling the threshold of a portal. The right leg is on the side of hope, hope that they have enough starting pitching and veteran guile to stay in the playoff race until they are bolstered by the return of the Disabled Duo, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. The left leg is in the great beyond, the prospect that they are finished as an elite, perennial contending team in this league, a team on which the players got old all at once and for which the rebuilding will be difficult indeed.

They are last in the league in almost every offensive category known to stat geeks. And their bullpen is a fried mess. They've already lost seven games that have been decided from the seventh inning on. They lost only six in April, May, and June combined last season. Some guys they counted on in that bullpen role aren't totally healthy, others have let them down. But that seventh-inning stat also is a reflection of their lack of offense - they just don't have late-game rallies. And if you think that the situation will improve just by leaving things alone, then perhaps you have your head sunk in a vat of baseball rubbing mud.

The Phillies need some kind of new energy. Something. Anything.   If it's a trade, so be it. If it's simply calling a few players up from the minor leagues, such as the Friday call-ups of Jake Diekman, Raul Valdes, Hector Luna, and Mike Fontenot, that's good, too. They needed new faces in the clubhouse to change the decor, a squirt of Febreze. Don't look at it as panic. Look at it as maintenance, to fix or to prevent, like new spark plugs, or air in your tires, or blood-pressure medication. The Phils aren't a bad team, they just have become stagnant.

Of course, with all this happening to the Phillies, fans like to play the blame game. Right now, they are hunting the heads of both the general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., and the manager, Charlie Manuel. But the truth is, it's really neither of their faults.

If Amaro is guilty of anything, it's in his zeal to preserve the status quo. The GM has been trapped by the success of the franchise. When a team has been a consistent winner, change is a tough risk.

Three years ago, it appeared to me that Chase Utley was losing some of his production mojo, and that was before the hip and knee injuries. A more proactive general manager might have traded him then. But had Amaro moved the beloved Chase, fans would have had his head.

Preserving the winning era (and also because he has the money to spend) is why the GM has had to give too-long contracts to older players, and bite the bullet on those untradeable contracts when the player's performance has declined. (See Placido Polanco). Perhaps that same principle trapped him into re-signing Jimmy Rollins, when a shortstop temp, all in the name of change, may have actually helped the Phils more.

And now, a similar situation faces Amaro this offseason with centerfielder Shane Victorino. So what would you do?

Meanwhile, the people calling for Manuel's head might be doing it more out of frustration than intelligence. The current Phillies malaise has nothing to do with the skipper. Yes, I scratch my head sometimes at some of the manager's moves. (Like a few days ago, when, with runners at first and second and nobody out, he had Polanco, one of the lone Phils who can handle the bat, sacrifice-bunt to set up light-hitting Freddy Galvis and pinch-hitter Erik Kratz.) But he gets it right most of the time and has created a comfortable-enough clubhouse culture for the Phils to have won five straight division titles.

Manuel can't make them hit. And it is beyond me that professional players need a closed-door lecture to remind them to play a ball for a single instead of letting it get past them for a triple. Or to hit a cut-off man. Or to be more disciplined with their at-bats.

What's Manuel supposed to do, wire up his players and shock them when they swing at a ball out of the strike zone? I can see a banner now at Citizens Bank Park: "Pavlov's Dogs."

To suggest that a different voice in the manager's chair would make the Phillies a better team is to assume that the Phils have a lot more to give. They don't. They are what they are - a weak-hitting team whose starting pitching is perhaps their only salvation.

Unless they change it a little. New guys in the clubhouse bring new energy that chisels away complacency. And if Diekman, Valdes, Luna, and Fontenot aren't enough, then do more. Make a trade if you can. Bring up Domonic Brown if you need to, and stop waiting for the kid to find the secret in triple A. He's bored and down in spirit in the minors. Stop focusing on the kid's flaws and welcome his strengths. Brown might struggle with a fly ball, but at the end of the day he's a power-hitting speedster. You see any of those types in this Phillies lineup?

You see, it's not panic. It's maintenance.

Parting shot

Who would have thunk that in May the 76ers would be the team carrying the Philadelphia sports flag? Flyers fans are still reeling after their team's meltdown against the New Jersey Devils. And they don't feel any better after reading Ilya Bryzgalov's pronouncement that what he "lived through this season, I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy." You were the one who bartered for a monster $51 million contract. Those kinds of rubles come with expectations.