Phillies infecting the city with sick season
The Phillies clubhouse was hushed after Sunday’s game. A few players sat in front of their lockers, but for the most part the room was empty and lifeless. It was fitting symbolism.
The team once fondly referred to as the Fightins limped into the season’s intermission with a 4-3 loss against the Braves. Atlanta swept the series. The Phillies have dropped 10 of their last 11 games. The last time they won a series was against the Colorado Rockies. That was almost three weeks ago. The Phillies are now 37-50, their worst record at the All-Star Break since going 24-61 in 1997.
When the season began, there was a lot of talk about holding things together until some of the important personnel convalesced. Chase Utley is back and Ryan Howard is back and Roy Halladay will be back soon. If that represents some small hope for the few remaining believers, it’s the equivalent of a tiny piece of splintered driftwood in an otherwise cold sea of a season that threatens to drown everyone in defeat.
There's another, less pleasant consequence to getting the team back together. It eliminates so many excuses. Now there is only the grim, undeniable truth.
“The way we play,” Charlie Manuel said, “it’s not good enough to win and we don’t win because we don’t play good enough.”
It was a bit of poetry – dark and raw and candid.
The Phillies are 15th in Major League Baseball in runs scored, 16th in slugging percentage, 17th in home runs and 19th in on-base percentage. They are 22nd in ERA. And, after leading the big leagues last year, they have fallen to 12th in fielding percentage. They don’t do anything particularly well – except for crane their necks to get a better look at all the franchises that went zooming past them while they regressed.
“When I sit there and watch us play, we need some things,” Manuel said. “There are three phases to the game: pitching, defense and offense. We get hurt somewhere along the line every night because we’re not consistent in those areas and the way we play the game.”
The Nats are 15 games over .500 and the Phils are 13 games under. There are four teams ahead of the Phils in the NL East and eight teams in front of them in the wild-card race. Looking up at all those clubs isn’t nearly as staggering as looking down at so few. Only four National League teams – the Rockies, Padres, Astros and Cubs – have worse records than the Phillies. That is depressing company.
It's like the season has unfolded in a strange parallel universe, impossible but real, something flipped upside down by Bradbury or Vonnegut. We do everything but tilt our heads to the side in a vain struggle to understand it -- and sometimes we do that, too.
It's loopy, this Phillies season, and so is our compulsive desire to find an explanation for the futility. It's the bats and the gloves and the bullpen and the injuries and the manager and the general manager and the unforgiving cosmos. It is every reason you’ve thought of and thousands more that you haven’t.
“It’s tough,” Manuel said. “We were always in the hunt so we hardly never talked about winning or losing. Nobody ever talked about it because we always felt like we were going to win. You can definitely sense that that isn’t there no more.”
The absence of that attitude has been the subject of countless radio shows and stories and barstool conversations. The debate about what went so wrong, and why, has become an endless, desperate academic exercise all over the area. The circular conversation says so much about this town, about our need to cling to a moment, four years ago, that made us matter by proxy, if not nationally then in our minds. That championship gave us a better, if fleeting, collective sense of self. More than anything, that’s what this season has been about for Philadelphia: fear that the good times might be over.
If the Phils continue to lose, it will mark a swift return to that familiar, maddening, long-running inner monologue that we perfected during so many summers wasted on bad baseball -- the one where the only noise we hear is each other, on loop, bitching into the void and filling it with more venom. Wins promote health and losses spread illness. What a sickly bunch we've become again.E-mail John Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org