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Inside the Phillies: Phillies had winning April despite many issues


Inside the Phillies: Phillies had winning April despite many issues
The leadoff hitter appears lost, the fragile ace has yet to win a game, the rotation is shaky, and the injured closer has proven that he is not, in fact, a superhero. So many elements of what worked for the Phillies last year have been absent in this young season. And yet the team finished April with 11 wins and nine losses, near the top of its division.

So why wasn't the month a disaster?

The compound word of the year is: comebacks. Of the team's first 11 wins, nine came after the Phils trailed the opposing team. They can thank the bullpens of Atlanta, Washington, Colorado, San Diego, Milwaukee, and Florida for struggling to close games, and themselves for showing resiliency.

The dark underbelly of comebacks, of course, is the fact that one's team trailed in the first place. The most obvious culprit for creating a deficit is the starting pitching, but a peek at relevant statistics reveals that the offense should share the blame. In April, the Phils batted .248 with eight home runs in innings one through three; .250 with five homers in innings four to six; and .311 with 15 home runs in innings seven to nine.

Compare this with the more balanced attack in 2008 (in an admittedly larger sample size): .250 with 69 home runs in innings one to three; .273 with 84 homers in innings four to six; and .240, with 59 homers in innings seven to nine.

This tells us that the Phillies are generally not succeeding against National League starting pitching this year, and have been able to prey on weak bullpens. The team is rightly self-satisfied for displaying intensity no matter what the score, but would benefit in May from a more even distribution of its runs. As Wednesday's loss to Washington, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Matt Stairs' eighth-inning groundout showed, comebacks are special and cannot be assumed.

Why has the offense struggled through the early and middle innings? Interestingly, most Phillies hitters have started the season well. Manager Charlie Manuel asserted throughout spring training that his team would be better than last season, because the lineup posted a collective .255 batting average in 2008. Manuel has insisted that nearly every Phillie is capable of improvement.

So far the old hitting coach has been proven correct. Nearly every regular is outperforming last year's team average. The very notable exception is Jimmy Rollins, for whom the Mendoza Line appeared but a distant dream until April 29, when he finally lifted his average to .207. Because Rollins bats first in the lineup, his struggles are magnified: In Baseball, if your leadoff hitter does not reach base, your team will struggle to score.

Manuel granted Rollins two days off in April to work on his mechanics, and the shortstop has shown recent progress. His swing is simple, making temporary flaws ostensibly easy to correct. But Manuel has said that when a slump becomes prolonged, any player's confidence suffers, complicating recovery. Self-esteem must also be considered in any discussion of dropping Rollins to the bottom of the batting order, though the team cannot withstand another dismal month from the leadoff position.

Nor can the Phillies withstand another month like April from their rotation, whose inconsistency has been well-documented. Close observers understand that pitching, not offense, carried the team into and through the playoffs. No club can win consistently with a 5.63 team earned run average, the Phillies' number in April.

And no club would want to attempt a title defense with an injured ace and closer. Cole Hamels' freaky bad luck and Brad Lidge's inflamed knee and ERA are concerns for the Phillies . Hamels, because he finally began to pitch well between taking line drives off the shoulder and rolling his ankle in the grass, is probably closer to a turnaround. Lidge has been shaky all season, and his knee issue provided an explanation. But he threw well on Friday and said he was ready for the Mets on Saturday.

How you view the Phils' first month, then, depends on how you view life. An optimist would say that the team's winning record despite so many issues bodes well for them. A pessimist would say that without a few big hits and timely walks, the Phillies would be near or in last place. Both parties would likely agree, though, that by the end of May the team's true nature will have become much clearer.

Inside the Phillies :

Read Andy Martino's Phillies blog, The Phillies Zone, at http://go.philly.com/sports.

Blog response of the week Posted by KarenA 10:03 AM, 04/29/2009

Maybe Cole [Hamels] needs some sort of exorcism to chase the bad karma away. He just can't seem to get a break (no pun intended). Nice win [Tuesday]. Refreshing not to have to play catch-up.Contact staff writer Andy Martino

at 215-854-4874 or amartino@phillynews.com.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: May 3, 2009

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