One of baseball’s oldest axioms reminds us that small sample sizes are the ultimate illusion — think twice about what you’re looking at. That logic aside, it’s tempting to say the Phillies delivered a message while taking 2-of-3 from the Mets this week, despite devastating news about Roy Halladay.
Can the Phillies win without their ace? Most everyone says no, but here’s a revolutionary thought: The Phillies’ comeback from the ash heap has officially begun. There are a number of reasons to believe the NL East will be wide open from here to October and that the Phillies, even without Halladay, are capable of winning it.
Reason No. 1: Philadelphia still has the division’s most talented 1-2 punch in Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. No team can match that, and that’s true even though Lee hasn’t won a game in 2012.
In fact, the former Cy Young Award winner should be ready to run off a long winning streak. Lee’s 0-2 record doesn’t reveal that he’s throwing with nearly the same efficiency as 2011, when he was a 17-game winner.
Lee’s WHIP is down from last year; his excellent 1.6 walks per nine innings remains exactly the same. The ERA is up slightly, but his strikeout ratio is steady (almost one an inning) and the all-important BABIP (batting average for balls in play) has improved from 2011.
The biggest difference, however, is in home runs, as Lee is surrendering them at a significantly faster rate than in ’11. Lucas Duda hit a two-run blast in the sixth inning Wednesday night that gave the Mets a 3-1 lead, which should’ve buried the Phillies once and for all.
But Carlos Ruiz tied the game with a two-run HR off Bobby Parnell in the seventh inning, leading the way to a stirring 10-6 victory. That underscored a critical point about parity in the East.
Reason No. 2: Everyone’s coping with a major flaw.
“I wouldn’t say there are any dynasties in that division,” said one major league executives. The Mets revealed their fatal flaw in Wednesday’s loss, as the bullpen was unable to protect a late-inning lead at home — an unforgivable sign for a contending team.
Overall, the Mets are 15th in the National League with a 4.49 ERA, but it’s their relievers who are killing them. Their 5.45 ERA is the NL’s worst by almost a full run.
The Nationals are the league’s pitching leaders with a 3.01 ERA, but who knows if Stephen Strasburg will be extended beyond a 160-inning limit? Who knows if he’ll be part of the stretch run?
The Braves can hit (leading the division in runs) but their pitching is only in the middle of the pack, and the Marlins, although hot in May, are still too volatile to bury the competition.
Put it this way: Who trusts Heath Bell in the ninth inning?
Reason No. 3: Help is on the way.
OK, here’s where logic turns to crossed fingers, because to say Utley and Howard will be productive in the second half is wish-casting at best. Then again, no one has suggested either one is finished for the year.
For now, the organization is citing the All-Star break as a loose timetable. In speaking to Comcast’s Jim Salisbury this week, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said, “Ryan has improved every day and he continues to improve.”
And, referring to Utley, Amaro is hopeful the second baseman can report to Florida to begin playing minor league games, “fairly soon. He seems to be doing better and better every day.”
In the meantime, the Phillies offense has obviously suffered — they’re in the middle of the NL pack in OPS and slugging percentage. But here’s the most counter-intuitive response to Howard’s and Utley’s absences: With the exception of the Braves, the Phillies have still out-scored everyone in the East. That suggests things can only improve when (or if) Howard and Utley return
Reason No. 4: Charlie Manuel fuels this team’s toughness.
He’s about as old-fashioned and old-school as it gets, which comes with its blessings and curses. Manuel would be of no use to players who need an articulate, deeply empathetic manager. Charlie isn’t wired for those kind of Dr. Phil encounters.
But he’s the right guy in the jaws of a crisis. There’s something reassuring about a manager who isn’t overly reliant on team meetings — who can address the emergency in the uncomplicated language that resonates with most ballplayers.
When Halladay went down with his shoulder injury, Manuel stood before his team and distilled his message into a single forward-directed challenge: We’re going to deal with this, now show me what you’ve got.
Actually, the Phillies had been bracing for this moment all along, as they were 23-18 in games not started by Halladay. There’s been no panic in the dugout or the clubhouse. This is an older, slower version of the NL powerhouse we’ve known since 2009, but make no mistake: Manuel and his Phillies aren’t ready to fade away, either.
NEWS ITEM: The Yankees’ Half-Full Glass
Or perhaps it’s half-empty, depending on your expectations of a $204 million team. But the Bombers head to Detroit this weekend 2 1/2 games out of first place, which is either a small miracle, given the season-ending injuries to Mariano Rivera and Michael Pineda — or a huge disappointment, since the offense, second in the AL in runs last year, has been so sporadic thus far.
Consider: In 2011 the Yankees led the American League with a .337 average with the bases loaded, and batted .344 in those situations in 2010. In other words, they were monsters when the situation called for it.
This year, however, the Yankees are a billboard of anxiety. They’re just .151 (8-for-53) with the bases loaded, ranking them 26th in the majors and 13th in the AL. That drought includes a recent 0-for-15 and 1-for-34 streak with the bags full.
Joe Girardi continues to give his players a wide berth, saying, “I know we have good hitters and I’ll trust my hitters over time.” But Alex Rodriguez spoke more candidly when he said, “You’ve got to swing at strikes … and we have to do a better job.”