Wednesday. That could be the day. Chase Utley will spend Tuesday night playing for the Iron Pigs and then if all goes well could join the Phillies for the last two games of the Pirates series. Chase will be returning to a scene far more grim than the one he encountered last year when the 1st place Phillies were struggling offensively, but on the whole, were still one of the best teams in the National League.
When Utley returned last season, I joked that he would be asked to carry out a Winston Wolfe style fixing job. You’ve got a baseball team minus an offense, in a clubhouse, take me to it. On the whole, Utley did a pretty good job with that task last season. With his return and with the addition of Hunter Pence, the Phillies scored plenty of runs from June through the end of the regular season. Utley’s individual stats were not gaudy, but that was hardly the point, the team just played differently when you put him in the lineup instead of Michael Martinez.
If Utley was given a tall order when returning to a first place team last season, what he faces this year is either monumental or insurmountable. The Phillies are firmly in last-place. Much of their troubles don’t seem to fall into a category that Chase Utley could fix. To be blunt, Utley doesn’t pitch. Yesterday’s double-header loss to the Rays showed exactly the kind of team the Phillies have become. In a tough pitcher’s duel, the Phillies scratched out a slim lead, only to see it tossed away by the bullpen. Then, given a chance to tie the score, they couldn’t get that final big hit. In the nightcap, Cliff Lee continued his terrible June and the Phils looked lifeless and defeated from the start.
Before losing his patience with the media yesterday, Charlie Manuel made the comment that the Phillie were not pitching well enough to put together a winning streak. On the surface, that is true. A team that puts together a winning streak finds a way to beat Tampa 1-0, or 2-1 in that opening game yesterday. They get an occasional shutout from Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. They have lockdown 7th and 8th inning guys. The Phillies get none of that, so they can’t go three days in a row without a starter getting lit up, or watching a AAA reliever play kerosene man in the late innings.
The worst part about this pitching situation is that there doesn’t appear to be a quick solution. The Phillies could use several bullpen arms. They need Halladay back and they need Lee to start pitching like the streaky Lee of last summer. Again, Chase Utley has nothing to do with this, but if you look a little deeper, take a bit of an optimist’s view, you could look at the Phillies as not a team without pitching (though that is a huge problem), but as a team that has played all season without a rudder. The Phillies can’t get out of their way, and if you want to remain hopeful for the 2nd half of this season, you want to believe that is because they haven’t had anyone step up and take the reins, drag the team back onto the right course.
If that’s true, if the Phillies aren’t quite as bad as they look, then they are suffering from a colossal lack of leadership. That would fall into the lap of people like Jimmy Rollins and Charlie Manuel. Manuel, a noted player’s manager, hasn’t been able to motivate or to relax his players this season–two of his supposed strong suits. Manuel’s latest tirade, after a loss in Toronto, hasn’t helped the results on the field. The players aren’t responding, and they’re not responding to someone like Jimmy Rollins, either, who has stepped up his own game, but hasn’t brought any of his teammates with him. In the past, a hot Rollins always meant a winning team, but that hasn’t been the case this season, another thing making 2012 unrecognizable to the modern Phillies’ fan.
So, when Utley returns, assuming it is this week, he’ll be a welcome addition to the lineup. The removal of Michael Martinez, who is 6/45 since returning from the DL, should help the offense. Why Charlie continues to play him every day, I have no idea, but you hope Chase’s return would mean Martinez’s return to AAA. But more than taking that black hole out of the lineup, you’d hope Utley can bear the burden. Whatever pressure the team is feeling, whatever is causing the constant negative reinforcement needs to go away if this team has any chance, so in my opinion it has to be Chase who is saddled with all that. The rest of the team has proven quite incapable.
Why did the entire offense look better when Jim Thome was crushing away in the cleanup spot during the interleague road trip? Because Thome isn’t bothered by hitting fourth. He had a dreadful April and spent the next six weeks in Florida, but Jim Thome is a middle of the order hitter. He always has been. That’s what he’ll be when his current hot streak ends, and he’ll be one when he retires. He’s the only one the Phillies have on this team right now, so it’s a shame he’s 41 and can’t play in the field.
Utley has that kind of presence, as well. Even if he comes back and hits second, even if he comes back and hits .240, you hope his name in the lineup changes the approach of everyone else just enough to make a difference. If it doesn’t the Phillies are likely cooked, because by the time the next wave of relief could come, it would likely be too late.