I’m not ready to bury the last-place Phillies, but put it this way: I will not be surprised if this is the beginning of the end.
The season is little more than one-quarter complete. Your eyes can deceive you at this time of year, or, heck, even in September. The Phils actually were impressive in their 4-1 victory over the Nationals on Wednesday night — flawless on defense, resourceful on offense, practically glowing with left-hander Cole Hamels on the mound.
Still, even on this night, when the Phillies ended their four-game losing streak and moved within 4 1/2 games of the first-place Nats, you wonder.
What would the Phils look like next season without Hamels, a potential free agent who is 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA in his last eight starts, the longest winning streak in the majors this season?
Perhaps even scarier, what would they look like without catcher Carlos Ruiz, who suddenly is their cleanup hitter and most indispensable player — and who narrowly escaped injury when he took a foul tip off his right wrist?
X-rays on Ruiz were negative. He is day-to-day, and — unlike Hamels — signed through 2013.
The big picture, though, remains troubling.
The Phillies are the National League version of the Yankees — difficult to dismiss because of all they’ve accomplished, but showing decay.
Actually, the Yankees are in better shape, at least offensively. For all of their supposed issues, they rank second in the AL in OPS and third in home-run rate. The Phillies are ninth and 12th in the NL in those categories, respectively.
Maybe first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley will return from injuries that have sidelined them all season and lead the Phils to their sixth straight division title.
Maybe shortstop Jimmy Rollins will snap out of his season-long offensive funk once he returns from paternity leave.
Maybe right-hander Roy Halladay will become the Halladay of old, instead of a pitcher who continues to draw negative reviews from scouts.
These are the Phillies, after all.
A team that, like the Yankees, often performs best when challenged.
Two weeks ago, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. publicly acknowledged the possibility of the Phils “selling” at the trade deadline. He informed other clubs of that possibility as well. At the time, I advised him to take a deep breath — several deep breaths, actually.
It still is too early to count out such a proud, competitive group. On the other hand, who can predict with any confidence, much less certainty, that the Phillies will recover?
No one knows when Howard and Utley will return or what they ultimately will contribute. Right-handed starter Vance Worley will avoid Tommy John surgery, but pitch in pain the rest of the season with a bone chip and inflammation in his elbow. Remove closer Jonathan Papelbon and the bullpen ERA would be 5.11, worst in the NL.
The returns of Howard and Utley could change the entire dynamic, lengthening the lineup, forcing opposing starting pitchers to work harder, enabling the Phillies’ pitchers to operate with greater for margin for error.
Then again, the Phillies scored only 713 runs last season — 11th in the NL — with Howard playing 152 games and Utley 103. Their run total was down from 772 and 820 the previous two seasons, not to mention 892 in 2007. This season, they’re on pace to score a mere 641.
To put it mildly, this is not manager Charlie Manuel’s kind of team.
Manuel, like most managers, is most comfortable when his players do the heavy lifting. Much as we all love Big Chuck, he became a legend in Philadelphia thanks to hitters mashing three-run homers and pitchers delivering strings of quality starts.
Manuel’s motivational skills remain formidable — he said that he helped lighten the mood Wednesday night, “talking, running my mouth, whatever it takes.” Still, Manuel is not an expert handler of pitching. Nor is he a skilled practitioner of little ball, though the Phillies did execute a suicide squeeze to score their third run.
While Manuel was back to his defiant self in his postgame news conference — “We needed to win a game. We’re going to win some more. We ain’t going nowhere.” — he revealed a different side the previous night, lamenting the Phillies’ lack of offense.
“We should be able to come back and win some games every now and then,” Manuel said Tuesday. “How many times have we come back and won games being behind?”
None — the Phillies are 0-17 when trailing after seven innings — but few will pity a team with a $175 million payroll, the second-highest in the game.
The Phils are not the only club with debilitating injuries. And though they lack power, they do not lack speed. Rollins, infielder Freddy Galvis and outfielders Shane Victorino and Juan Pierre all can run. The Rays’ Joe Maddon, for one, would find a way to squeeze more runs out of this team.
Yet Manuel, in fairness, can do only so much to cure the Phillies’ present state, and even less to address the future.
If you’re Hamels, would you re-sign with the Phillies when the team is A) reluctant to pay you market value, B) full of 30-something veterans and C) in an offensive decline going on six years?
If you’re Victorino, another potential free agent, wouldn’t you see the same ominous signs?
Both players say they want to stay with Philadelphia; no surprise there. But they’re talking about the Philadelphia that became a fashionable destination for stars such as Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, the team that dominated NL East for a half-decade.