MAY IS A month in which any amount of optimism can be excused, and if you spend enough time scanning the airwaves and sports pages in this town you will find a number of sources attempting to talk themselves into believing in this Phillies team.
Some of that might be the result of a coping mechanism - the thought of 4 months of meaningless baseball is a weighty thought to process - but even the most ardent of cynics cannot deny the multitude of variables that could blossom into positives between now and October.
We have written off Ryan Howard before, only to watch him spontaneously combust and spend the summer months as a giant home run hitting ball of flames. Jimmy Rollins drove in three runs yesterday as he continues to look like a man who has rediscovered his swing. Carlos Ruiz might yet find the zone he inhabited last season as the team's undisputed MVP. And Domonic Brown, who came inches away from hitting his sixth home run in 65 at-bats, has more upside than all of them.
Yet there is a crucial flaw in the logic that leads to the portrayal of the Phillies as a dormant contender waiting for the alarm. Sure, you can identify a list of things that might soon break right. But they need to break right without any of a number of factors breaking wrong. The qualification is a crucial one, and in the wake of another rough outing by one of the roster's founding rocks, it is also quite relevant.
Most of us have spent the first 7 weeks of the season assuming that Cole Hamels will get better. The assumption remains rational, even after a 10-4 loss to the Indians in which he threw 106 pitches while allowing five runs in five innings. Everything about his peripherals point to a pitcher who is only a touch out of rhythm. His velocity, his ground-ball rate, his swings-and-misses - all of them look similar to last season, when he logged 215 1/3 innings with a 3.05 ERA.
Without a doubt, something is off, and the natural inclination is to wonder whether that something involves an injury, but Hamels said a couple of times yesterday that he feels healthy and strong.
The Hamels I've seen through nine starts looked a lot like the guy who we saw in 2010. In his first eight starts that season, Hamels allowed 19 walks, nine home runs and 24 earned runs while striking out 52 in 50 1/3 innings (4.29 ERA). His numbers in eight starts heading into yesterday: 22 walks, seven home runs, 24 earned runs, 43 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings over eight starts (4.18 ERA).
In 2010, batters were hitting .282 with a .350 on-base percentage and .475 slugging percentage through eight starts. Through eight starts this season, they were hitting .225/.307/.424.
"I feel like once it clicks, everything will sync and it will be one foot after the other," the pitcher said.
More than anything, Hamels' struggles are a reminder that the Phillies cannot afford much in the way of underperformance from their most trustworthy commodities. Against the Indians, their bullpen showed again that it is ill-equipped to handle a significant injury to one of their three back-of-the-bullpen arms, allowing a 5-3 deficit to turn into a 10-3 deficit. The sore back that has sidelined Mike Adams since the weekend took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, another reminder of what can go wrong.
In addition to injury, we must consider the potential of regression. Kyle Kendrick is a different pitcher now than he was 2 or 3 years ago. But is he a guy who will finish with a 2.47 ERA? Same goes for Jonathan Pettibone, who is 3-0 with a 3.41 ERA in five starts. We spent the first month of the season hearing about the importance of Delmon Young, but through 12 games he has yet to provide a solid reason to believe that he will be much different from the player who hit .267 with a .299 on-base percentage and 15 home runs a season in 2011 and 2012. Brown could head down as well as up.
Precedent gives reason to believe in the eventual improvement of Hamels, Rollins, Howard and Ruiz. But it also suggests some level of regression from Kendrick and Pettibone, plus a handful of blown saves from a thus far perfect Jonathan Papelbon. The rest of the roster is performing about how you would have expected at the start of the season: Brown, John Mayberry Jr., Michael Young, Chase Utley, Laynce Nix, Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Cliff Lee, and so on.
The question is whether the improvements will trump the combination of regression and injuries. There is plenty of time for it to occur. But at 19-22 at the quarter pole, the Phillies are already in a hole.
Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: Marcus Hayes takes the contrary view, saying that the Phillies will almost certainly get hot when the weather does.