SAN FRANCISCO — Hours before Tuesday afternoon’s pivotal Game 3 at AT&T Park, Charlie Manuel said to no one in particular a wish that every Phillies fan was probably hoping for as the game progressed.
“I hope we score a lot of runs today—10, 15 or 20,” he said as he passed the time before the game.
However, it’s not known if Manuel was talking about one game in particular or the entire series. Either way, the Phillies appear to be in trouble. After all, in a postseason filled with tepid offensive performances, Tuesday’s was the worst of the bunch.
The Phillies scratched out just three hits, stranded seven runners and left three of them in scoring position on Tuesday as they were blanked in a playoff game for the first time since time since Game 5 of the 1983 World Series. Has there ever been a worse time for the Phillies to go belly-up with the bats?
“You know what? We can talk about the pitching. The pitching might have something to do with their swing. Our guys are trying. I mean, they might be trying too hard,” manager Charlie Manuel said after the the 3-0 defeat. “Look, when you don’t score no runs [or] you don’t get no hits, it’s hard to win the game. But I don’t know what we’re going to do about it. I can sit here and talk about it. I can go in and talk to them about it, but when the game starts tomorrow is when we can do something about it. You know, when the game starts, that’s when you’re supposed to hit. You’re kind of on your own when you leave a dugout.”
Trailing the best-of-seven series 2-1, there isn’t much Manuel can do about his lineup. Moreover, the players really don’t have too many answers for the hitting woes that began as soon as the playoffs started. Against the Reds in the NLDS, the Phillies batted .212 with one homer and two doubles in a three-game sweep. More troubling is that the hitting has gotten worse through the first three games of the NLCS.
With three hits against pitchers Matt Cain, Javier Lopez and Brian Wilson, the Phillies are batting just .195 in the NLCS. Things have reached a point that even the predictably patient Manuel opted to bust Raul Ibanez to the bench for Game 4 and start Ben Francisco in his place. That’s not too over the top considering Francisco, a right-handed hitter, will face lefty starter Madison Bumgarner and Ibanez is 0-for-11 in the series and hitless in his last 15 at-bats in the postseason. However, Francisco has appeared in one game since Oct. 3 and he ended up getting drilled on the helmet by a pitch in Game 2 of the NLDS.
That’s not exactly easing into game action.
“I would say from Raul's standpoint he’s kind of a warrior and he tries hard all the time. That’s who he is. And first of the year he was over-swinging and things like that. I’ve seen that in the last couple of days from him,” Manuel said, pointing out that the right-handed Francisco might be a better option against lefty Madison Bumgarner.
Again, Manuel doesn’t have too many options. Between ineffectiveness and Chase Utley’s incomplete swing, the Phillies are in a rare position. After all, the recent playoff runs were over rather quickly. As watchers, we’re not used to watching the Phillies fall behind, come back and force the series to go long. Sure, they fell behind 2-1 in the 1993 NLCS to Atlanta to win the series, but that’s ancient history. Plus, the Phillies were underdogs in that series.
This time the Phillies are the overwhelming favorites to win the NLCS with many astute baseball analysts projecting them to reach the World Series with the brute force of the league’s most formidable starting rotation.
Not so fast says Manuel.
The Phillies of 2010 are not the same as they were in 2008 or 2009, Manuel said. The opposition has adapted and adjusted to the Phillies’ offense. For instance, it used to be that hitters like Shane Victorino or Jimmy Rollins would see fastballs because pitchers weren’t too keen on facing Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Jayson Werth.
That’s all changed now. Instead, the Phillies don’t see too many fastballs at all anymore. Even against hard-throwing right-hander Matt Cain in Game 3 the Phillies didn’t get a single base hit on a breaking pitch.
No, the Phillies aren’t fooling anyone these days.
“One of the problems with our hitting is you’ve got advance scouts and all the TV and Internet and things like that, and nowadays they go to school on your hitters, and they pitch us backwards a lot,” Manuel said. “When I say backwards, that means when we’re ahead in the count they don’t give us fastballs, they give us breaking balls and change-ups and they pitch to us more. Especially our little guys, they don’t throw those guys the fastballs they used to.
“We’re basically a fastball-hitting team, and a lot of times you see them a count will go 3 and 1 or 2 and 1 or 2 and 0 or something like that they’ll throw us a breaking ball or something like that we swing at it and we put it in play and dribble it. Those counts two or three years ago, those were fastballs because they would look and see the middle of our lineup and they didn’t want to get down to our third and fourth hitter or even fifth hitter in some ways, but at the same time those other guys got more fastballs. They’ve gone to school on us.”
This is not something that can be fixed quickly, either, Manuel said. His hitters are going to have to make some big changes, the manager explained.
“We talk about that a lot. Our guys like to swing, and the whole thing about it is when you get up in the count, you’re supposed to get a good ball to hit. Sometimes we do not get a good ball we can hit or handle,” Manuel said. “We put the ball in play. We try to put the ball in play, of course, with two strikes on you, if you've got to cut your swing, put the ball in play, don’t strike out. We don’t make some of the adjustments.
“And you can talk about these things, but they’ve got to hit home and you’ve got to work on improving on those things. It definitely might take a while. But the league kind of has adjusted to some of our hitters if you sat there and watched the games. If you look at our lineup and you see the adjustments we’ve made in the last couple of years and how the pitchers pitch us now, then we still gotta make some adjustments against how they pitch us.
“Can we? Yeah, definitely we have the talent to do that.”
Teams don’t win 97 games to wrap up a fourth straight division title by accident. But sometimes the best teams don’t win. Remember the Oakland A’s of 1988 and 1990? Clearly those teams were the best in the game, in fact, in 1988 the A’s ranked second in runs and homers, but when the World Series arrived the bats went ice cold. In losing to the Dodgers in five games, the A’s batted .177 and scored just 11 runs while the only victory came in a 2-1 decision thanks to a walk-off homer by Mark McGwire.
It was the same story in 1990, only this time the A’s were swept by the Reds, tallying just eight runs in the series and batting .207. Six of the A’s runs came on homers in the ’90 series.
Are the Phillies resigned to the same fate as the Amazing A’s? Could they become a footnote in history with just one title when it could have been many more?
We’ll find out soon.