PHILADELPHIA — This was a game that confirmed all the worst fears of Philadelphia Phillies fans — who, judging from the angst on sports-talk radio and Internet message boards around town even on those frequent days the “Fightins” win, are convinced the offense can’t hit, and the back half of the pitching staff is a disaster, and, oh yeah, in case you hadn’t noticed, the sky is falling, too.
On Thursday, seeking a sweep of the visiting Boston Red Sox — in a matchup many pundits were calling a World Series preview — the Phillies instead succumbed, 5-2, in a way that is certain to inflame the collective psyche of Phillies fans.
The Phillies managed only four base runners in seven innings against Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, scoring their only runs on a two-run Ryan Howard homer in garbage time in the ninth inning. Meantime, after lefty Cole Hamels left the game after taking a line drive off his right hand in the fourth inning (X-rays were negative, and he is expected to make his next start), the middle of the Phillies’ bullpen gave up all five Red Sox runs.
“We got to see their team, and they got to see ours,” Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said, tamping down talk of a World Series preview. “The stages are completely different. But these are games that count, and you need to win them.”
And that’s the thing about the Phillies: They win the vast majority of their games — 51 of them season, with only 31 losses — a 101-win pace. For all their flaws, they have the best record in baseball by a healthy margin, and their lead in the National League East (four games over the Atlanta Braves) is the largest of any division leader.
“I’m tired of hearing everybody talk about how many runs we don’t score,” Howard said. “We score enough runs to win games. That’s what matters — getting the ‘W.’”
Here is one theory on the origin of all the angst. During the Phillies’ mini-dynastic run of the past 41 / 2 years — which, so far, has produced four straight division titles, two trips to the World Series and a World Series championship in 2008 — fans and media grew accustomed not only to success, but to a slew of 8-7 and 9-6 wins, perpetrated by a team constructed around a slugging offense that ranked among the game’s best.
But this is a different era — both in baseball and in South Philly — and when every game seems to be 2-1 (the score by which the Phillies beat the Red Sox on Wednesday night, assuring a series victrory), with few blowouts to provide a low-stress breather, it requires a certain fortitude to live with that new reality.
“They’re holding us to one standard, and that’s to be the best, center fielder Shane Victorino said of Phillies fans. “And if we fall short of that, they’re going to say what they want to say. They’re not trying to be negative. They’re trying to get us to think we are a good team. I’d rather have fans like that than fans who couldn’t care less.”
All the scrutiny of an offense that, entering Thursday, ranked just 10th in the NL in batting average (.246) and slugging percentage (.375), may be obscuring one of the most dominant stretches of starting pitching in recent history. Hamels’s abbreviated, four-inning start on Thursday brought a close to the month of June for the Phillies’ rotation, which put up a 1.96 ERA during the month — making them the first rotation to finish an entire month with a sub-2.00 ERA in 19 years.
“They’re the backbone of our team,” second baseman Chase Utley said of the Phillies’ starters. “We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in without them.”
All this has been accomplished with a pitching staff running at roughly half its full capacity, due to injuries. Two of their top four starting pitchers, right-handers Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton, are parked on the disabled list, having won just one game between them since mid-May. As for the bullpen, the Phillies are now on Plan D for their closer – lefty Antonio Bastardo – after Plans A (Brad Lidge), B (Jose Contreras) and C (Ryan Madson) all went down with injuries.
So, on second thought, perhaps the alarmists are right: The Phillies can never keep this up, what with so many pitchers injured. They’ll never start hitting, of course. And the sky is definitely falling. How, pray tell, can the Phillies hold onto any shred of hope at all?