Thursday, May 31, 2012

Phillies, Dead or Alive?

It has been a strange two months in baseball, and no team has represented this odd start than the Philadelphia Phillies.

Everyone knew scoring runs in the early season would be an issue with the team's two highest-paid and most talented offensive players on the shelf.

Putting even more pressure on an aging and injured Phils squad, many thought, would be an improved division basically from top to bottom. The Braves were already a good club, now with a full year of Michael Bourn to build on. The Nationals brought in Gio Gonzalez to team with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman, not to mention the eventual call-up of Bryce Harper to infuse the lineup. Miami hired Ozzie Guillen, inked Jose Reyes and nabbed the reliable Mark Buehrle and talented - albeit insane - Carlos Zambrano. And the Mets, well, they couldn't get any worse.

Things weren't going to be easy for the Phillies at the start. And they weren't. As expected, Philadelphia struggled early on to score runs. Jimmy Rollins couldn't get going. Shane Victorino was his streaky self. Hunter Pence tried to make up for the absence of Utley and Howard every at-bat. Placido Polanco continued to age. John Mayberry took a step back. Utley's replacement, Freddy Galvis, was fantastic in the field but nothing to write home about with the stick. The only players doing any sort of consistent hitting were Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre, a career eight-hole hitter and a slap hitter.

To make matters worse, the starting pitching was not quite as great as it has been. Roy Halladay, while still better than 90 percent of the pitchers out there, didn't look as dominant as he has. Cliff Lee is awesome, but the man still is winless. Though Cole Hamels has elevated his game yet again, pitching at a Cy Young level.

Still, it wasn't enough. The losses were piling up, the Phils fading, and even more injury has begotten the Fightins. Vance Worley was shelved. Laynce Nix hurt. Cliff Lee had his issue. Cole Hamels got suspended. Now Roy Halladay's shoulder is falling apart and the Phillies are dead last. The sky is falling on Ruben Amaro's grand experiment.

That's how it feels anyway. Then you look at the standings this morning, following the Phils' 10-6 victory over the Mets last night, and you realize this depleted, struggling team is just three games back from first place.

Judging by the way both fans and media alike have many times left this team for dead, you'd think they were already looking at a 9, 10, 11 game hole. I have to admit, it certainly feels that way. Watching the 2012 version of the Phillies is painful. They aren't cruising by people with either insane pitching completely neutering the opposing offense or a slew of home runs carrying them to a power surge. Many of the games are close, low-scoring and utterly agonizing to witness. Yet they are two games over .500 and just three games out of first with plenty of games to play and potentially some reinforcements coming in.

How have they done it? Well, two men have carried this club more than any others. The first is the man this franchise desperately needs to find a way to sign, the left-handed former World Series MVP who only gets better with every passing season.

Cole Hamels has been nothing short of phenomenal. Where Halladay and Lee have had hiccups, Cole has been brilliant. This is now his staff, at least for this year, and his team. He's among the league leaders in damn near every pitching category, and now with Halladay on the shelf, he's the man who will be tasked with leading the rotation. Judging by the way he's been going and the resolve he's developed the past few years learning from the likes of Halladay and Lee, the Phils are in good hands there.

The other man helping keep this team afloat is the man Hamels chucks the ball to, the one and only Carlos Ruiz. I've already written about Chooch and what he's been doing this season. Simply put, he is right there with Yadier Molina as the best catcher in baseball right now. The man has continued to handle the pitching staff magnificently, and now he's become the team's most lethal and reliable hitter. Hell, even when he doesn't start, he's coming in and turning the game around like he did last night. It's frightening to think where this offense would be without him, and where this team would be without Ruiz and Hamels.

Thankfully, behind the strength of those two, the development of Galvis and some strong play from the likes of Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton, the Phils are well within striking distance, even if no one realizes it.

Of course, they still are in last place. And now, they are without Roy Halladay for 6-8 weeks, yet another injury to one of the team's aging stars. It makes it all feel like this is a lost season for the Phillies, like they are dead in the water.

But then you look up and see those standings, see how close they really are, and you wonder if maybe they are in a better position than it seems. Yes, Halladay is out. That is a huge blow. And the timetables on the return of Utley and Howard are still unknown. But at some point, they will be back, giving a boost to the offense. The rotation still has Lee and Hamels as a dynamic 1-2 punch, not to mention a closer who remains perfect in save opportunities. If they can hold it together and keep within striking distance, the second half could be their time to strike.

Still, it's hard not to wonder where exactly the team is right now. No Halladay, no Utley, no Howard. A shaky bullpen, inconsistent offense. It's not inconceivable to envision this season becoming a lost cause.

But it's not lost yet. Not by a long shot. Just look at the standings. It feels like the Phillies are dead, but they are very much alive.

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