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News » Paul Hagen: After one month, Phillies have room for improvement

Paul Hagen: After one month, Phillies have room for improvement

Paul Hagen: After one month, Phillies have room for improvement
Baseball'S SEASON can seem endless, a long overland slog with no finish line on the horizon. The schedule almost has to be mentally broken down into small, bite-sized pieces to be manageable.

It's kind of like living in New York City. A Manhattan resident probably will identify himself as being from a certain neighborhood: Lower East Side or Yorktown or Soho or Gramercy or Little Italy or Stuyvesant Town or Tribeca or Yorkville or Upper West Side or Lenox Hill or wherever. And get to know the local grocer and newsstand operator and beat cop. Otherwise, it's overwhelming, a little too much to absorb.

Similarly, Baseball people talk about winning a series, taking a homestand, breaking even on a given road trip. They construct mile markers to measure the sand as it runs slowly through the hourglass. One of the most common is a team's record by month, and the one the most attention is usually given to is the opening month of the regular season.

The Phillies dropped the curtain on April last night. When they resume play against the big, bad Mets tomorrow evening, the calendar will have flipped to May.

So the April '09 record has now been indelibly entered into the record: 11-9.

This has not been met with loud huzzahs, for the most part. In fact, there's been some bitching about the starting pitching, some moaning about the on-the-interstate batting average of Jimmy Rollins; a ninth-inning single nudged him to .207. There has been concern about the injury that landed catcher Carlos Ruiz on the disabled list and the knee inflammation that could put closer Brad Lidge there as well.

Even manager Charlie Manuel has been known to grumble from time to time when he thought he detected the slightest trace of complacency from his defending World F. Champions.

Fair enough. Expectations have been raised as high as that big, red championship banner flying from the centerfield flagpole. The payroll has been upped dramatically as well. The rules of engagement have changed.

Still, it might be helpful to insert a deep breath here.

It's an old - but true - clich? that while championships can absolutely be lost in April, they can't be won in the first month of the season. The opening stanzas are for surviving cold weather, taking stock of your roster, letting things shake out, jockeying for position. Unless a team gets absolutely buried, it's no harm, no foul.

"I think we've still got a ways to go before the league kind of levels out," Manuel said during his postgame postmortem last night. "That's still down the road a bit."

Nobody's going to pretend that the Phillies are playing terrific Baseball right now. Yesterday evening's snoozer, a desultory, 4-1 loss to the last-place Nationals, ended the month on a sour note. Washington's starting pitcher, Scott Olsen, began the night without a win and with an unsightly 7.29 earned run average. The lead was protected in the eighth and ninth by a pair of relievers, Kip Wells and Julian Tavarez, who signed non-guaranteed minor league contracts in March.

So, yeah, there's room for improvement.

The bottom line, though, is that the Phillies are in second place, a game-and-a-half behind the Florida Marlins. And that ain't bad. Especially considering that the only team ahead of them has already endured a seven-game losing streak and the teams in their wake have issues of their own.

A certain amnesia must have set in. The first 3 years that Manuel managed the Phillies , the team had losing Aprils. And when they were aced out of a playoff spot in the final week in 2005 and 2006, those slow starts came back at them like a spicy Italian dinner sometimes can around midnight.

In fact, when the Phils went 15-13 out of the gate last season, it was considered a decent achievement. Especially since it was their first winning opening month since 2003.

Two games over .500.

Same as this year.

Manuel got a little agitated when pressed pregame to put the won-lost record in the context of the spotty starting pitching, the extended celebration of last October's success, all the early off days, the rain delays and postponements, and the shock of losing Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas.

"Our record is what it is and we've played the way we've played. I think our record is exactly how we've played. It's probably what it should be," he harrumphed. "Would I like for it to be better? Hell, yeah. I'd liked to have won every one of them. But we didn't do it. That's how we played. Our record is what it is. What the hell are we going to do about it? We're going to try to improve it is what we're going to do."

He went on to point out that any club needs to average only a modest three games over .500 each month to win 90 games. "Having a winning month the first month of the season, yeah, that's good. Because sometimes, most of the time, we've gotten off to a bad start," he added.

To repeat, to once again be the last team standing at the end of the postseason, the Phillies will have to play better and more consistently than they have so far.

That's an issue for the next 5 months. What they've done to this point might not be great. But it's good enough. *

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Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 30, 2009

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