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Phil Sheridan: Phillies looking for a spark — any spark

Wishful thinking fills the balloons with air. The reality of a long season pops them, one by one.

The Phillies are missing the energy that second baseman Chase Utley once added to their lineup. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
The Phillies are missing the energy that second baseman Chase Utley once added to their lineup. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

Wishful thinking fills the balloons with air. The reality of a long season pops them, one by one.

That's pretty much the story of the Phillies as they try to gain traction in this season of uncertainty. The obvious explanation holds true: Take Ryan Howard and Chase Utley away and this just isn't the team that won five consecutive National League East titles.

It was wishful thinking to believe they could slap the pin-striped costumes on just anyone and get the same results. It was wishful thinking to expect Jim Thome to be the guy he was 10 years or even five years ago, wishful thinking to believe that John Mayberry would blossom at age 28 just because Jayson Werth did, wishful thinking to expect Hunter Pence to be the big bat in a lineup and to think Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix were more than journeymen.

"It's different," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "Just the cast - the cast is completely different. It's brand new to a lot of the guys here, the expectation of winning, getting off to a start like this. The good thing is, we believe in ourselves even if it hasn't shown up on the field yet."

The Flyers just finished a season in which they lost their captain, top defenseman and most imposing personality on and off the ice. They were able to adapt to the absence of Chris Pronger during the long regular season, especially after the trade-deadline acquisitions of a couple of big defensemen. But they missed Pronger desperately as the postseason unspooled and ultimately unraveled.

When the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, there was a lot of talk about the importance of Pronger, a veteran of many deep playoff runs. It follows that a team misses that presence when it is gone.

The Phillies miss Utley and Howard in the middle of their lineup. They miss them in the clubhouse and in the dugout, too. They are two of the best players in the history of the franchise and two enormous elements in the personality of the team that won so many games and the hearts of so many fans.

Manager Charlie Manuel sounded downright nostalgic after Sunday's game, and that was a victory in which the Phillies led from the moment Rollins led off with a home run.

The Phillies need "some of our hitters to start enjoying and having fun playing," Manuel said. "You can tell. It's not like we're not trying, because we are. We're quiet. We go about things like we're doubting ourselves. I think that's what we've got. We've got to do something exciting to get everybody clicking on the same page."

Over the last few years, Utley and Howard were often the guys who provided that excitement. A three-run homer here, a rally-starting double into the alley there. Just knowing their turns in the lineup were coming around made you believe something special could happen. You believed it because you had seen it, not just out of wishful thinking.

"We still have a good team," Rollins said, "a team that can win series, a team that can go on a run. It just hasn't happened yet."

Manuel said again that he thinks his hitters are trying too hard to fill the void left by Utley and Howard. That's understandable. Thing is, this team doesn't need the offense of 2007 through 2009, when the Phillies were first or second in the NL in runs per game. With the quality of the starting pitching, this team could win with middle-of-the-road offense.

Over the last five years, the NL average has been right around 4.4 runs per game. If these Phillies were just scoring at that clip, instead of the wretched 3.8 runs per game they currently average, they might well be in first place instead of last in the NL East.

They don't have to be great, just competent. They scored 4.4 runs per game last year and won 102 games.

It has to start with Rollins and Victorino, the top-of-the-order guys who were here for the years of big rallies and three-run bombs. Rollins hit his first homer of the season Sunday. He also popped up, failing to advance a runner at third with one out in the fifth inning. Those are the tack-on runs that take pressure off tiring starters and a terrifying middle-relief corps. They are the runs that loosen up the dugout and get momentum rolling from game to game to game.

"We can always change that with one swing of the bat," Rollins said.

Maybe his leadoff homer will be that one swing. Maybe Rollins will get hot and it will be contagious and this team will be in thick of things when Howard and perhaps Utley return.

That's what makes wishful thinking so seductive. It's so pretty right up until the balloon pops.