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June 6, 2011

On the Beat

Looking for Philly Firepower

by John Perrotto

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Charlie Manuel has four number-one starting pitchers at his disposal, along with two late-inning relievers whose contributions have more than offset the loss of incumbent closer Brad Lidge. Furthermore, he is managing the team with the best record in the major leagues

Nevertheless, the Phillies' manager is having a hard time feeling good about the state of his club these days. Manuel is happiest when his team is hitting, which is only natural given that he made his mark as a player as a slugging outfielder in Japan and was the hitting coach for the powerhouse Indians teams that won American League pennants in 1995 and 1997.

To Manuel’s dismay, the Phillies aren't hitting. They are averaging just 4.00 runs a game, which ranks them 10th in the National League and 20th in the major leagues.

"We need to score some runs," as Manuel put it succinctly over the weekend.

The Phillies scored just seven runs during a four-game losing streak that ended Sunday when they broke out in a 7-3 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Yet the win wasn't completely enjoyable for the Phillies, as they stranded 16 baserunners.

First baseman Ryan Howard (.290) and center fielder Shane Victorino (.289) are the only Phillies with a True Average over .280. Nearly the entire lineup has been struck by a hitting malaise.

"It's been a little puzzling," Victorino said. "If we had the answer, we'd have started scoring runs a long time ago."

Part of the reason for the Phillies' offensive problems has been injuries. They did not have their projected starting lineup intact until last Friday, when Victorino came off the disabled list after missing 15 games with a hamstring injury. Second baseman Chase Utley missed the exhibition season and the first 46 games of the regular season with knee problems, and right fielder Domonic Brown missed the start of the season after breaking a bone in his hand in spring training and was not recalled from Triple-A Lehigh Valley until May 21.

The Phillies' lineup was also plagued by injuries last season, as every starting position player but catcher Carlos Ruiz spent time on the disabled list. Yet the 2010 Phillies finished second in the NL and seventh in the majors in runs scored with 4.77 per game. That gives Manuel hope that his offense can get on track soon.

"I think this lineup is going to hit," Manuel said. "It has to hit. I've got confidence in those guys hitting. I've seen those guys hit for four or five years, some of those guys for six or seven years. I don't see any reason why we won't hit. We can get started any time we want, though. That's how I look at it. I like the lineup, but we've got to start scoring some runs."

While the Phillies are maintaining a three-game lead over the Marlins in their quest for a fifth consecutive NL East title, many can't help but wonder if their lead would be bigger without the injuries. Manuel, though, isn't one of them.

"I don't sit back and worry about the ones we won or lost," Manuel said. "I just think about today's game and putting my best team on the field. Hell, tomorrow might never come."

The pitching staff, though, insures that most of the Phillies' tomorrows should be bright, ranking second in both the NL and the majors with an average of 3.44 runs a game.

Roy Halladay, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, leads the Phillies' ballyhooed rotation with a 2.72 Fair Run Average, followed by left-hander Cole Hamels (3.21), Roy Oswalt (3.63), and southpaw Cliff Lee (4.07).

Closer Brad Lidge has been out all season with a shoulder injury, but Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras have been outstanding in his stead. Madson has posted a sparkling 1.98 FRA, and Contreras has pitched to a 2.40 mark.

"Our team has relied on our pitching, and they've done a great job," Victorino said. "We need to get going as an offense, though. I think it's good timing that we've got everybody together now. We've relied on the pitching staff all year, and we need to start giving them help."

A return to form by Utley would help, as he has struggled to a .219 TAv. He has had at least a .299 mark in each of his six full major-league seasons.

"He's getting better every day," Manuel said. "He's actually come back in better shape than I thought. He missed a long time, and he's still getting his legs under him."

Manuel feels the Phillies can also be more aggressive with Utley and Victorino back in the lineup. Victorino averaged 35 stolen bases over the previous four seasons, though Utley went from a career-high 23 steals in 2009 to 13 last year.

"I feel like we added a couple of guys who can run bases, going first to third and second to home," Manuel said. "Victorino can steal some bags for us, and Utley will get some big bags for you, too."

Despite the lack of hitting and injuries, the fact remains that no team in baseball has posted a better record than the Phillies’ 35-24.

"The expectations are so great on our team, both inside and outside the clubhouse," Victorino said. "To have the season we're having so far, I think we have to step back for a second and say we're playing pretty well. Still, you always want to do better, and I know we can do better."

Victorino said that with a quiet confidence. Even though the runs aren't coming, the Phillies have not gone into panic mode.

"Team have won 114 games and still had times when they didn't score runs," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "When a team goes 162-0 then you'll see a team that never had a slump."


Rumors and Rumblings:

Yankees designated hitter Jorge Posada continues to struggle so badly that there is a chance he may be released by the end of the month… The Royals' Joakim Soria has looked so good since being dropped from the closer's role that he could regain his job after another outing or two in non-pressurized relief situations… The Rockies' patience with center fielder Dexter Fowler has just about run out, and indications are that they would be willing to trade him in the right deal… The Rays are likely to trade B.J. Upton, particularly if they fall out of the American League East race in July, since they feel Desmond Jennings will be ready to take over in center field by then.


Scouts' views:

Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo: "While I appreciate him wanting to keep going in spring training when he had mono, he really should have taken some time off. He hasn't looked strong all season. He's not an overpowering guy to begin with, but his legs start looking wobbly after a couple of innings."

Athletics first baseman Daric Barton: "I don't understand why it took Bob Geren so long to move this guy down in the batting order. He is what he is, a guy with limited power who will take a walk. He's not a No. 3 hitter, never has been and never will be."

Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew: "It's funny how, at least for me, he's gone from overrated to underrated. I saw him in college and I didn't buy into the hype that he would be a superstar. Now, he's really become a very good player, but it seems like his name rarely comes up when people talk about the best shortstops in the game."

Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez: "He's finding out what it's like not to get pitched to when you're a star. After the year he had last year, everyone's a lot more careful with him. He's seeing breaking balls and changeups even when the pitcher is behind in the count. He's rarely getting challenged, and you can see he's visibly frustrated by it."

Padres right-hander Dustin Moseley: "He's found the perfect match as a sinkerballer pitching in that big ballpark in San Diego. He's really a number-five starter at best, but he's putting up good numbers because Petco Park allows him—and a lot of guys like him—to look like a number-three."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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