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Phillies belong in the basement right now

Last place is the last place you want to be even in the middle of April.

But that's where the Phillies stand in the National League East, a division they have dominated for the last five seasons.

They begin a four-game series Thursday night in San Diego in last place and it is the exact place they deserve to be right now.

They have played four series and lost three of them.

They lost two out of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that is last in baseball in runs scored.

They lost two out of three at home to the New York Mets, the team that just about everybody believes will finish last in N.L. East.

They lost two out of three to the San Francisco Giants even though they had a starting pitcher provide them with 10 scoreless innings Wednesday night at AT&T Park.

Those are the kinds of efforts that anchor a team at the bottom of a division.

Everybody knew when the Phillies left spring training that they were flawed, but it's different when you actually see it.

The Pirates have the worst offense in baseball, but the Phillies without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are only slightly better.

When manager Charlie Manuel tries to inject some offense, he does so at the risk of exposing players with defensive shortcomings.

Placido Polanco's slumping bat was left in the rack Wednesday night against the Giants, but that meant Ty Wigginton had to defend at third base while Laynce Nix played first. A normally outstanding infield defense instantly becomes mediocre at best.

Wigginton made the 11th-inning error that allowed the Giants to pull out a 1-0 victory that Matt Cain deserved every bit as much as Cliff Lee.

Charlie Manuel had a chance to be the man to make a difference, but he defied conventional wisdom by letting a left-handed hitter face a left-handed pitcher when he had the option to do otherwise.

With Carlos Ruiz at third base and one out in the top of the 11th, Manuel sent up Jim Thome to hit for Lee, who had provided the Phillies with one of the most memorable pitching performances in franchise history during a game that was played at a pace that defied television-commercial delays.

When Giants manager Bruce Bochy replaced righthander Sergio Romo with lefty Javier Lopez, Manuel had two decent options: Polanco or John Mayberry Jr.

They'd be better options, of course, if they were not both mired in early-season slumps. Manuel explained after the game that he thought Thome was his best option to drive a fly ball deep for a sacrifice fly. He recited Thome's numbers against Lopez and noted he had put the ball in play eight times in 11 at-bats.

Not this time, however. Thome struck out, Mayberry hit for Juan Pierre and grounded out softly to end the top of the 11th. Wigginton's error was followed by Melky Cabrera's game-winning hit to right field off Antonio Bastardo.

Polanco was 1-for-7 against Lopez, but had never struck out against him and is still a better option to make contact than Thome. Mayberry had never faced Lopez until the at-bat after Thome struck out and his weak grounder to shortstop would not have plated the run.

You can't win if you can't score and it does not appear as if the Phillies' struggle for runs is going to end any time in the near future.

That's the main reason they are in last place for the first time since April 20, 2007 and it has to be the main topic of discussion when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his band of decision makers are behind closed doors.

Great starting pitching and the schedule are the two things the Phillies have in their favor as they attempt to escape their unfamiliar place in the standings. They play eight of their next 11 games against the Padres and Chicago Cubs, who are a combined 6-19. Three games against a good Arizona Diamondbacks club are sandwiched in between.

After a nine-game stretch against division rivals — three in Atlanta, three in Washington and three at home against the Mets — the Phillies play seven games against the Padres, Houston Astros and Cubs, who may be the three worst teams in the National League.

The latter stretch ends May 18 and if the Phillies are still in last place then, this team will have more flaws and issues than we ever could have imagined.