The voice of reason for the Philadelphia Phillies sounds like the West Virginia mountains. It belongs to a 67-year-old man known for his homespun humor and the occasional malapropism, and who has been around big league baseball long enough — 42 years, to be exact — to know when a hot streak stops being a hot streak and becomes an identity.
And to Charlie Manuel, what the Phillies have accomplished in the season’s early days — they were 7-3 and leading the National League East by two games following Tuesday night’s series opener at Nationals Park — doesn’t rise to the level of an identity. Not even close. A week and a half of inspired play, led by an offense that has been the most potent in baseball to this point, is merely a hot streak.
“I think we realize we haven’t won nothing,” Manuel said Tuesday. “People can talk all they want to, and I’m not saying it’s good, bad or whatever. That’s all part of it. But at same time it’s how we handle our success [that matters]. So far I like everything I see.”
While the baseball world was falling in love with the Phillies’ vaunted starting rotation this spring, searching through memories and history books to find another that could compare to it, the Phillies’ lineup — which carried the franchise to a World Series title in 2008, before anyone named Halladay or Lee or Oswalt wore a Phillies uniform — was an afterthought.
If that lineup was discussed at all, it was in terms of what it was missing — namely, Jayson Werth, who departed to Washington via free agency, and Chase Utley, who has been sidelined since early spring with a worrisome knee injury.
“Obviously, this year there were more expectations from our pitching,” said center fielder Shane Victorino, “and our offense kind of goes under the radar.”
But through their first three series of the season, the Phillies’ offense was outperforming its pitching staff. Entering Tuesday, the Phillies ranked first in the majors in runs per game (6.6), batting average (.334) and OPS (.865), and had scored 10 or more runs in three of their previous five games.
To Manuel, however, we are still a ways away from the point at which a hot start becomes something more. Asked when that point occurs, Manuel said, “When the league settles.”
And when is that? “The league usually settles, I’d say, anywhere from 30 to 40 games” into the season, he said, “when you start making your second time around [the league]. That’s when the league settles [and] you kind of have a good handle on what everybody’s got.”
Manuel wouldn’t even acknowledge that the Phillies’ hot start has at the very least answered some of the pressing questions about their offense — specifically, whether they would be able to survive the losses of Werth and Utley.
“Nine games,” he said, “don’t answer that.”
Any team that loses its Nos. 3 and 5 hitters simultaneously is going to go through some soul-searching. (If you don’t believe that, check out the Nationals’ creative lineup Tuesday night, with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse sidelined.) But for the Phillies, there were palatable solutions from within.
To replace Utley, Manuel simply dropped longtime leadoff man Jimmy Rollins into Utley’s No. 3 hole, and shifted Victorino, who has leadoff-man skills, into the top spot. To replace Werth in the No. 5 spot, the Phillies have turned to lightly used Ben Francisco, 29, who has responded by putting up a Werthian slash line of .308/.386/.513 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).
“It’s only a week or so into the season, but so far so good,” Francisco said. “I’d rather be consistent for the whole year than have a bunch of peaks and valleys.”
Said Victorino: “It’s a dynamic lineup. Charlie always said that. He can put guys in different spots and still have a good lineup. When Chase comes back, everyone knows where’s he’s going to hit. Everybody understands what their role is.”
The Phillies have also been helped by a forgiving early-season schedule. Other than the division-rival Atlanta Braves — from whom the Phillies took two of three over the weekend — they don’t see a team that made the playoffs in 2010 until an interleague series against the Texas Rangers in late May.
By then, presumably, the league will have settled. And presumably, if the Phillies are still playing at their mid-April level, their voice of reason will have softened and will be willing to acknowledge that, yes, the Phillies, despite it all, have another powerhouse on their hands.