Watching the Phillies lately you could be overcome with any number of emotions. After the usual feelings, I often end up on deja vu. I looked into the blog archives from last June and I find posts about how the Phillies need to beat the Pirates. There’s one about the Phillies being closer to last place than first. There’s speculation about a Chase Utley injury. Sound familiar? In fact, things were worse last year. The Phillies were on an express train back toward .500, they got shut out for an entire series against New York, and the Braves were taking control of the division. We were a couple of weeks away from thinking about blowing up the entire team by moving Jayson Werth.
Of course, most of what people remember from last year is focused on the six games the Phillies played against the Giants in the NLCS. You forget, perhaps, how they got there. Something eventually clicked for the Phillies last year. They fired the hitting coach. They traded for Roy Oswalt. Whatever it was, from just after the All-Star break they played about 30 games over .500 and cruised into the post-season with 97 wins. It was a hell of a bow to put on a season that was going terribly wrong for about the first 100 games. The Phillies eventually got their jolt last year, though, and we find ourselves waiting for them to find that spark again under slightly different circumstances.
The Phillies are the epitome of a veteran team. In my mind it contributes to the fans’ frustrations. I remember the Phillies last trip to Atlanta. Freddie Freeman grounded into a rally killing double play, or struck out in a big spot and threw a miniature temper tantrum. At the time I was like, “WAHHHH. Look at that baby.” But, as the Phillies floundered a bit, I found myself searching for some emotion/any emotion from the Phillies. They don’t do that, though. They’ve been through it all. Chase Utley might dismantle some equipment up the tunnel, but on the field, you often don’t see much more than a frown.
And, the same goes with their issues on the field. These veteran guys will almost always stick with what got them there. Nobody learns how to play in the big leagues. Maybe you develop a little bit, but just about everyone arrives at a point where they are the player they will be, and most of the Phillies are at this point. Jimmy Rollins isn’t going to wake up one day and have a .400 OBP. To get Rollins to be that player you might have to take a time machine back to his high school days, or even earlier. So, while I think some fans would like to see drastic batting stance changes (ala Cal Ripken) or big changes in approach, that simply isn’t going to happen. Just like they can’t force themselves to throw a helmet, or snap a bat.
That brings us back to the fact that the Phillies need to be playing a bit better than this. Will there be a jolt, and where does it come from? It’s hard to hold a clubhouse meeting where you air people out on a first place team. I guess Ruben could go in there and threaten to ship people off to San Diego, or some last-place locale, but this team doesn’t seem to be receptive to that type of motivation. Like I said, you can’t change personalities.
What I think this team needs is some serious pressure from behind. They just completed a mediocre 4-5 road trip, but the Marlins have lost 4 in a row in their own right. The Braves are still stumbling along just above .500 and a few games back. I think as long as the Phillies are on track for the post-season, there won’t be a huge change in their play. I think you see this from veteran teams, or teams not being challenged across all sports. You get to a point where you know it’s only the post-season that counts so if the regular season isn’t going quite to your liking, what difference does it make if you are still in first? It’s almost like a veteran golfer only getting up for the majors, or a one of those Claude Lemieux-type a-holes who suddenly become point-a-game players in the NHL playoffs. I think we’re getting a bit of that from the Phillies this year.
And, in some ways, it’s hard to blame them. Because the post-season is really the only place where they can exorcise the demons from last year. It’d be a little less frustrating, and the fans would be quieter if the Phillies were 20 games over and scoring 5 runs a game, but if they didn’t execute in October again, you’d hear the same refrain. So, while I don’t think the Phillies are saving themselves for the post-season (and there are several other reasons why they aren’t playing up to par), I do think they are looking at this thing as a marathon.
So, it might sound odd to say, but I hope the teams behind them can create some pressure. First, because it might force them to address an issue or two if they persist through the next month, but also because I don’t really believe the Phils will suddenly be able to snap out of it if/when they go into the playoffs. I think they need to be sharper, be better prepared against good pitching, and the best way to do that might be to have to fend someone off during the stretch run.