Phils Embark on Divisional Test.

2012 Could Be An Uphill Battle.

The Phillies are 3.5 games out of first place in the NL East.  In terms of the actual standings, the Phillies have found themselves in much more precarious positions during their run of NL titles.  But the fixation with this team is not on their record, it’s on how they arrived at their first losing April since 2007.  Most people don’t see a division winner when they look out on the field this season and that belief along with the impossibly high expectations have created a negative feeling about the Phillies, regardless of their day-to-day results.

It’s something that I first noticed last year.  I think I said the fans were sucking the fun out of the season, and what I meant was, no one was going to be satisfied until the Phillies won the World Series.  The hundred wins were great, but the fan base focused more on the negatives.  It wasn’t about enjoying the six month regular season, it was about hypothesizing on ways the team would blow it in October.  When the Phillies fulfilled that prophecy, it set up an even darker mindset for 2012, something that has been exacerbated by their frustrating start.

The general mood surrounding the Phillies is easily observed on Twitter, or in the daily game stories.  This morning you can read an article about how the Phillies bats were mostly quiet after the first inning.  Keep in mind, last night was one of the Phillies’ best offensive games of the year.  They scored six runs on 11 hits in eight innings.  Somehow though, we’ve arrived at a point where we think good offenses score a run or two every inning and never get set down in order.  I’m not saying that the Phillies haven’t given everyone plenty of reasons to complain, but if we’re complaining about not scoring for 5 innings during one of the better games of the year, where does that leave us?

I don’t think there’s much that could change the mood of the fan base.  It feels like the Phillies are going to have to slowly win the fans over, pull them back off the ledge–if they can.  There’s a chance the Phillies won’t gain traction this year, but they’re still in a fine position should they be planning a run back to the top of the division.  If the Phillies are going to make that run, they’ll need to survive the next nine games.  I’m sure a lot of people think the Phillies need to scorch through this stretch at 6-3 or better and announce themselves as contenders immediately.  But the Phillies still aren’t at their best, you can’t be with a banged up bullpen and Kyle Kendrick in the rotation, so for the next three series, the important thing is to not lose touch.  Don’t go 3-6.

The pitching matchups will be tough, especially against Atlanta and Washington.  The Phillies have done a decent job against middling starting pitching this year, but good pitchers (with the exception of Lincecum and Johnson) have been especially dominant.  That doesn’t necessarily bode well for this six game stretch:

  1. ATL–Brandon Beachy, 1.05 ERA
  2. ATL–Tommy Hanson, 3.00 ERA
  3. ATL–Randall Delgado, 6.30 ERA
  4. WSH–Stephen Strasburg, 1.13 ERA
  5. WSH–Gio Gonzalez, 1.82 ERA
  6. WSH–Jordan Zimmeramann, 1.33 ERA

As you can see, especially against the Nats the Phillies are going to face some tough arms.  It’s going to be important for the Phillies’ pitchers to pull their weight during this stretch, because not many teams would run through these games scoring bunches of runs.  There’s a perception that the Phillies’ offense has letdown the pitching this year, but if you look at the Phillies’ losses they’ve only taken three defeats where the pitchers gave up four runs or fewer (for reference, the Nats have lost the last 4 games in that fashion).  They lost 2-1 on the second day of the season, 1-0 on the Cliff Lee night in SF, and 4-2 to the Giants the night before.  The typical Phillies loss this year has been in the 5-1 range.  Yeah, the offense didn’t do much, but the Phillies are giving up an average of 4.83 runs in their losses.  In their wins, they’re giving up 1.81 runs a game.  The perception that the Phillies give up 3 runs a night and win or lose based the bats isn’t entirely accurate.  The Phillies’ losses this season have been especially painful not only because of the offense, but because they’re usually down 4, 5 or 6 to zero, not 1-0.

There is a bit of good news for the Phillies mixed in with the bad, as Ryan Howard has headed to Florida to begin an aggressive rehab plan and Chase Utley may not be far behind.  The return of those two along with the possible return of Michael Martinez (prepare the fireworks) will put the Phillies in a position where they have to make some tough roster decisions.  Pete Orr is an easy candidate to be taken off the 25-man roster, but after that you get into questions about Freddy Galvis, Juan Pierre and Jim Thome.

This is where Thome’s lack of (figurative) flexibility really hurts him, and puts the team in a tough spot.  The only place you can even project Thome to be a help to this team would be in interleague play. and the Phillies play a grand total of nine games in AL parks this season.  The Phillies are forced to keep John Mayberry at the Major League level, because he is out of options.  Is it possible Juan Pierre could be a casualty?  It’s hard to believe that the Phillies would cut loose someone who has been their most productive LF, but sticking with Thome and Mayberry through their tough times would force at least one tough decision.

I think ideally the Phils keep Galvis as a defensive sub, replacement for Rollins/Utley.  Thome would realize he’s not contributing and hang it up and/or go on the DL and then the Phillies could at least buy some more time with Mayberry.  It’s tough to watch, though.  If anyone is in need of a breather in AAA, it’s Mayberry. but the Phillies don’t have that option.  Unfortunately, they don’t really have the luxury to play him every day either.  So, tough road trip for the Phillies starting tonight, we’ll see if Cole Hamels can start things off by padding that FA resume–squeeze a few more dollars out of the Cubs next winter.