Everyone who follows the Phillies on a daily basis knows they have flaws. But it isn’t until you get up close and personal with the team that is unquestionably the best in the National League that you see just how far the Phils need to go.
Last night, they began a crucial three-game series in St. Louis with a listless 4-1 loss to the Cardinals. That alone isn’t shocking, considering St. Louis is 60-37 and is winning baseball games at a .619 clip. They have a deep lineup, tremendous starting pitching and a very solid bullpen.
Right now, the Phils (who fell two games under .500 at 49-51) don’t have any of those things, and one couldn’t help but notice the disparity between the two clubs on Tuesday night.
The Phillies lost a game last night with Delmon Young hitting fifth in the lineup. Darin Ruf, who had 81 career plate appearances heading into last night’s game, hit sixth. John Mayberry hit seventh and Carlos Ruiz hit eighth.
That is simply not a lineup that comes close to what the Cardinals, or a lot of other teams in the NL, can throw out there on a nightly basis.
What made last night’s loss, and the two losses that preceded it against the Mets, so frustrating was that the Braves and Nationals both continued their struggles. Both teams lost again last night, with Atlanta now 2-3 since the break and Washington 0-5.
It was a golden opportunity to show the front office that the Phils could make a run and force Ruben Amaro to become an unquestioned buyer before the deadline. Instead, the Phillies remain seven games behind Atlanta in the NL East.
It was an opportunity wasted.
“I’d say you’re right,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel after last night’s loss. “We’re two games under .500 and the team ahead of us keeps losing, and we can’t gain no ground. That’s tough.”
“It would be nice if every time they lose we threw a win up there to cut down the deficit,” Phillies right fielder Delmon Young said about the Braves. “We’ve got, what, two and a half months? If we can cut just a game a week, we’ll be in first place by the end of the year. Unfortunately, we really don’t know as players in the clubhouse how much time we have together, so we’re trying to win as many games as possible right now.”
“It doesn’t matter who you play, you have to beat them,” Manuel added. “Yeah, we’re playing a good team and we’re getting ready to play another good team. But we’ve got to play good enough to win some games. We didn’t play good enough tonight. The Cardinals outplayed us.” – quotes per MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki
That basically sums it up. The Cardinals put together better at bats, ran deeper counts, made better contact, threw better pitches and played better defense.
That’s because they’re simply much, much better than the Phillies.
Of course, the Phillies are not trying to beat out St. Louis for a playoff spot. They’re trying to beat out Atlanta and Washington, and all they really need to be is just slightly better than St. Louis in these next two games. And then they need to be slightly better than the Detroit Tigers in two of the three games in the series after that.
Last night, they weren’t slightly better. They were much worse.
In contrast to Cardinals hitters who, as everyone saw in the 2011 NLDS and last year in the playoffs, demonstrate incredible patience at the plate and make pitchers work like no other team in baseball, Phillies hitters constantly swung at St. Louis starter Shelby Miller pitches that were up in the zone, chasing fastballs they had no chance of hitting.
“He’s got a good arm,” Manuel said of Miller. “He’s got a big fastball. He gave us pitches to hit. He challenged us at times with his fastball.
“I think when we get against a guy like this we get a little anxious and we want to hit him so bad we chase balls out of the strike zone up and that gets us in trouble. If we make him bring the ball down and get a good ball to hit, that’s how you adjust to pitchers like that because they will give you some fastballs to hit. If you swing at the high ones and they have command, more than likely they’ll keep feeding them and walk you up the ladder.
“We just chased a lot of balls up.” – quotes per CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury
In these last three games the Phils have been completely overwhelmed by three young, hard-throwing right-handers in Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey and now Miller. These are guys with good fastballs that like to challenge hitters with their heaters.
The hacking Phillies have been overmatched.
On the mound, Jonathan Pettibone once again was in trouble throughout most of the game but, honestly, did about as well as you could expect him to do against this lineup, allowing three earned runs in five innings of work. Of course, the state of the bullpen is such that the Phillies really needed another inning or two out of their starter, but didn’t get it.
Look, the Phillies are what they are. They don’t have enough outfielders in their organization to give them the five they would usually have playing at the Major League level. Pettibone is the team’s fourth starter, which he should not be.
Judging by quotes from Amaro this week, there don’t seem to be a lot of options for upgrades in a seller’s market right now. Not without sacrificing top minor league talent, anyway.
In addition, St. Louis is a juggernaut. Everything that organization does is magic right now. And unfortunately for Phillies fans, just about everything they do isn’t working. Even with the teams in their own division encountering similar troubles, the Phils have been unable to take advantage.
That’s why making up a seven-game deficit is no easy trick.
And that’s why it’s so difficult to see the Phils turning this ship around in time to make the playoffs.