Last night was a new milepost on this test of patience that we call a Phillies season. Cliff Lee was incredible. Ten shutout innings on a comical 102 pitches. The only time Lee had to sweat was when someone on his infield butchered a ground ball. The Giants had no chance. You could miss entire half-innings if you were slow with your channel flipping. The only problem was, the exact same thing could be said for the Phillies. Matt Cain was exerting an equal amount of control over the Phillies’ lineup. Coming off a near perfect game against Pittsburgh, Cain was almost that good again, dodging perhaps one legitimate threat in nine innings of work. It was one of the better pitching duels that you’ll ever see, and if the Phillies had been playing a little better, scoring just a few more runs, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. But, this was another loss, another lost series, another shutout. Every team wastes good pitching from time to time, but the way it happened Wednesday night felt significant.
Charlie Manuel complimented his struggling offense with a series of dizzying, stupefying moves in the top of the 11th. Carlos Ruiz led off with a double. Freddy Galvis bunted him to 3rd. Then Charlie got woefully out-managed, as is his custom any time he runs into Bruce Bochy or really any other working manager. Manuel stuck with Jim Thome against a lefty who allowed 15 hits to lefties in 92 at-bats last season. He then used John Mayberry as a pinch-hitter against a right-hander with two outs when he didn’t trust him to get a sac fly against a lefty with one out. That Ty Wigginton, who could have been replaced by Placido Polanco, made the game-deciding error in the bottom of the 11th was just the icing on the cake.
It’s not that Polanco or Mayberry are great options, but Charlie’s loyalty to Thome is misplaced and troubling at this point. Everyone likes Jim Thome, but it’s getting close to the point where he’s going to have to look in the mirror. He’s 1 for 12 with 6 strikeouts this year. His one hit was a roller through the infield. It’s hard to see a role where he can help the Phillies, but it’s hard to imagine Charlie not continuing to use him in important spots. Charlie has to make the right decisions this year. His margin for error has disappeared just like everyone else’s and if he can’t honestly access Thome’s skills, it’s going to continue to hurt the Phillies.
The other thing that struck you when watching last night was that something is going to have to change for this team. It’s not a big deal that the Phillies are 5-7, or 4.5 games behind Washington, but the way they’re playing is a big deal. What concerns me is that the vehicle for change is not readily apparent. That’s where the question of this team’s composition comes into play and a finger starts getting pointed at Ruben Amaro. I wrote a lengthy piece a while back about the Phillies and Amaro overreacting to their loss in the 2009 World Series. Since that loss the Phillies have gone on a spending spree centered almost entirely on pitching and their existing position players. The result is the veteran, pitching-centric team you see today.
While Amaro was quick to make a change after 2009, he’s been stubborn since despite the fact that the Phillies have endured three straight unsuccessful post-seasons and the core of regulars was deteriorating at a rapid pace. Heading into 2012, Amaro opted for a giant band-aid on offense and another binge on pitching. Can you blame Amaro for not seeing the Utley risk? Can you blame him trusting that John Mayberry would emerge? I think you can to a certain extent and you can certainly be critical of his depth decisions. In Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix and Jim Thome, Amaro brought in three players who stood in stark contrast to his post-NLDS mantra. In Wigginton and Nix he brought in two guys who have never really played for a winner. He brought in guys with defensive liabilities. With Howard and Utley out, the Phillies are usually starting three players who wouldn’t start for many other NL teams and at least one or two guys who are out of position. Doesn’t that blame sit with Amaro as the architect?
The series with San Diego is huge because if the Phillies as they are currently constituted plan on staying in this thing, they’re going to have to start showing some signs of life and they’re going to have to beat a team at the bottom of the league like the Padres. If the Phillies can’t start playing a little better, the fingers will start getting pointed and people will be singled out for blame. Will it fall to Charlie this time? Will the Phillies try firing a coach again? Would they think about a trade that could really shake up the clubhouse? Will they just wait it out until Utley and/or Howard come back? Would they try a small move like Dom Brown Part III first?
It’s still only twelve games, and like I said, the wins and losses aren’t the concerning thing right now, it’s a question of where the improvement is going to come from. This series against the Padres should provide the Phillies with a chance to get some things going. To maybe have a guy or two break out of an early season slump. I think it’s important that happens. For a number of reasons.