Are we tanking yet? Sixers start key stretch of season against league's creamy middle

Are we tanking yet? Sixers start key stretch of season against league's creamy middle

As we speak, the Philadelphia 76ers sit at 6-9, with a nice long four-day break after their Saturday loss to the Indiana Pacers. The record isn't very good in an objective sense, but it's light years ahead of where most Sixers fans expected the team to be at this point in the year, and it's good enough in the entirely underwhelming Eastern Conference that up until the Washington Wizards beat the Los Angeles Lakers last night to move to 6-8 on the season, they were still somehow in the playoff picture.

Needless to say, the middle is not where this team wants to be--the entire point of this season was supposed to be avoiding the middle. If Hinkie and company believed this team legitimately good enough to go for the top, perhaps we would, but far more hospitable to this team would be the very bottom, where of course we would be in prime position to jump-start the team's rebuilding process by adding one of the many increasingly tantalizing-looking top prospects likely to be ripe for the plucking in next year's draft. It's something everyone who roots for this team made peace with well before the season started, and something that's made the team's overachieving start somewhat controversial among its more ardent fans.

Still, a lot of this isn't the Sixers' fault--it's not just that the Sixers haven't been bad enough, it's that the rest of the East has been terrrrrrible. Of the 15 teams that make up the Eastern Conference, only the Heat and Pacers are unambigiously good--everyone else is some shade of mediocre or terrible, including such much-hyped teams as the Bulls, Knicks and Nets, who through a combination of injuries and underperformance have gotten off to absolutely disastrous starts to the season. A stunning 12 Eastern teams have losing records, and six of those are worse than that of the Sixers.

But starting tonight, the Sixers can help themselves achieve a little clarity. Over the next 11 days, the team will play six games against teams whose records are all within a game or two of their own--the Magic (twice), Hornets, Pistons, Bobcats and Nuggets. These are, except for maybe the Bobcats and mayyyybe the Magic, all teams we expected would be better than the Sixers this year, and ones we really don't want to have to worry about taking up our elbow room on the journey to the lottery in May. The Sixers could make things a lot easier on themselves in both directions by piling up the L's over this stretch.

Conversely, though, if the Sixers actually are good-ish--if this hasn't all been a fluke, but rather the handiwork of brilliant coaching, a strong team culture and some undervalued player personnel--then now would be the time for them to prove it. None of these teams are considerably better than the Sixers, but none are considerably worse, either. If they take care of business against this middling bunch--going 4-2 or better--we might have to finally admit that the Sixers are actually pretty OK, and not likely to tumble into the East cellar without jettisoning some of their better players first.

Either way, we should have a less murky picture of the Sixers and the NBA at large after this stretch, and considering how confusing this first month of the season has been, we could really use a little fog-clearing. It's hard to know which direction to root for--obviously the idea of adding a Wiggins, Parkle or Randle (or Exum or Gordon or Smart) next summer remains enticing enough that it's hard to give up on the original tanking plan, but it has been unspeakably entertaining watching this team play the type of ball they have been for the season's first four weeks--the good games, anyway. It'd be sad to say goodbye to that.

7:00 against the Magic from Amway Center. The Magic are just a half-game in back of the Sixers, meaning that losing to them tonight would drop Philly one rung further in the standings. Is Philly ready to start sliding? Are we ready for them to do so? Let's get some answers tonight.

New Jersey product Tim Adleman limits Phillies to 1 hit over 8 innings

New Jersey product Tim Adleman limits Phillies to 1 hit over 8 innings

Cincinnati Reds starter Tim Adleman came into Friday night’s start against the Phillies with an ERA above six, having allowed 10 runs in his last 5 2/3 innings. 

So, naturally, he gave up just one hit over eight scoreless innings. 

The 29-year-old righty dominated the Phillies in just his 20th career MLB start en route to his third win this season, pitching easily the best game of his young career in a 5-2 Reds’ win (see game recap).

It was understandably the best that Reds manager Bryan Price had seen from Adleman.
 
"It wasn't just because of the line score," Price said. "It was really command-based. Really good both sides of the plate. Had a nice sinking fastball, could straighten it out when he needed to. A very, very good changeup. I don’t think he even used a breaking ball there until the eighth inning.

"So it was really that good."

At just 100 pitches through eight, naturally the question for Price was whether to allow him the chance at a complete game. However, Price needed to get reliever Asher Wojciechowski work to get him ready for a start next week.

"I wanted to stay in there pretty badly, but you understand the move," Adleman said. "Wojo needed to get some work. It had been a while since he threw and it's a game in May. It's not a game that's deeper in the season. … I totally understand."

For his eight innings, Adleman attacked the Phillies' batters early in counts and didn't allow a batter to reach third all night. He retired the leadoff batter in all but one inning and allowed just four batters to reach base.

The Phillies' only threat came in the first inning. An Andres Blanco single was followed by an Aaron Altherr hit by pitch. That brought up Thursday's hero -- Tommy Joseph -- with two men on and just one out. Adleman utilized his changeup on a 1-2 pitch, inducing a weak grounder back the mound for a 1-4-3 double play. 

In three at-bats against Joseph, Adleman recorded three ground ball outs, all on the changeup, which is his primary off-speed offering.

"The scouting report is that he's a really good fastball hitter. Does a lot of damage on fastballs," Adleman said, "So if you can get him in situations where you're confident he's looking for a fastball and then cut a changeup on him, it can be really effective. Obviously, you have to keep it down, but that's the same with all your pitches."

Joseph's at-bats set the trend for the rest of the Phillies' lineup. The Reds’ starter kept the ball down and didn’t allow another baserunner until he walked Blanco to lead off the seventh. Sixteen of his 24 outs came on ground balls and only five pitches were hit past the infield. 

Adleman stated his goal was to use the Phillies’ aggressiveness against them with strikes early in the count and it worked. It was his first time pitching into the eighth inning in his career and he did so with almost exclusively his fastball and changeup.

"I think it had a lot to do with that little pause [in his delivery] and he did a good job changing speeds on us," Joseph said. "He basically did it with two pitches, which says a lot about how hard this game can be. Hats off to him. 

"Next time we'll see if we can't get him back."

In a way, Adleman was getting the Phillies back. He made the third start of his career at Citizens Bank Park last year on May 14. He took the loss against Friday’s starter, Aaron Nola, while allowing three runs in five innings.

Born in Staten Island, Adleman was raised in New Jersey, but grew up a Yankees fan. He hadn't been to CBP until college, where he faced Villanova while playing for Georgetown. 

At 29, he's a little old for a second-year starter because he took a winding road to the major leagues. Drafted by the Orioles in 2010, he was nearly out of baseball by 24. He spent two years in independent leagues before catching on with the Reds and debuting in the show last season.

The journeyman starter had struggled in his last few starts, which helped his ERA balloon to 6.19. However, his Friday night opponent seemed more than happy to take some air out of the balloon. Adleman became the fifth pitcher in the last six days to come into a start against the Phillies with an ERA of 5.00 or above and allow one run or less over at least five innings. 

"It feels good," Adleman said of his night. "Philly's a good young team and Nola is making quite a name for himself. He out-pitched me last year and coming into tonight I knew I had an opportunity to right the ship so to speak."

Pete Mackanin calls team meeting after Phillies hit low point with 21st loss in 26 games

Pete Mackanin calls team meeting after Phillies hit low point with 21st loss in 26 games

BOX SCORE

When the opposing pitcher comes in with an ERA that matches the area code for San Diego -- 6.19 -- and holds you scoreless on one single over eight innings, well …

You've reached the low point of your season.

And it's time for a team meeting.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin called for a little powwow after his club suffered a 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night (see Instant Replay). Don't let the final score fool you. It wasn't that close. The loss was the Phillies' 21st in the last 26 games. They were held to three hits for the fourth time in the last six games -- five losses -- and have scored just nine runs over that span.

Mackanin acknowledged that this was the low point for his team, which owns the worst record in the majors at 16-30. Cincinnati starting pitcher Tim Adleman entered the game with a 6.19 ERA, but he pitched like an ace in holding the Phillies to just a first-inning single over his eight shutout innings (see story). Adleman walked two, struck out four and at one point set down 16 straight Phillies. The 29-year-old right-hander has made 20 starts in his big-league career and this was by far the best.

"Yeah," Mackanin said when asked if the loss was the season's low point. "We need to step it up. We’re better than this. I know we’re better than this. We’ve just got to start playing as aggressive as we can and take it to the other team. Be aggressive at the plate and pound the strike zone."

That apparently was Mackanin's message to the club in his postgame meeting, though he would not talk about it.

"He just wants to see us play with a little more fire and a little more energy," Aaron Altherr said. "You know, it’s something we’ve got to do. Today wasn’t too great. But, like I said, hopefully we can right the ship and start winning some games again."

Tommy Joseph was tight-lipped on the content of the team meeting.

"That's basically stuff that was between us," he said. "There's a pretty good understanding that we need to get going in here and that was really it. I think the rest is pretty self-explanatory and what he had to say is between us.

"It's definitely not a lack of effort. Everybody is out there trying to get the job done. I think there are certain nights when the job is getting done. When things start to spark a little bit, everybody feeds off that. Obviously there are some nights where that doesn't happen. It's definitely not from a lack of effort. Everybody is going out there busting their ass, so it's just a matter of sometimes it goes our way and sometimes it doesn't."

Mackanin used slumping Odubel Herrera in the leadoff spot for the first time this season and he produced a ninth-inning double after Adleman exited. The Phillies actually loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, but a fielder's choice ground ball and then a strikeout by Maikel Franco, the potential tying run, ended the game. Franco struck out swinging wildly at a full-count breaking ball from Raisel Iglesias.

Joseph mentioned that Adleman changed speeds well and used a slight hesitation in his delivery to throw off hitters.

But was it more the pitcher or more just a bad offense?

"It’s hard to tell," Mackanin said. "That's a daily question. Are we not hitting the ball like we should or is the pitcher that good? It seems like I look up and every other pitcher we face has a 6.00 ERA, but I think it’s all because we’re missing good pitches to hit. We’re getting pitches to hit and we’re not hitting them."

Aaron Nola did not have a good start. He gave up a pair of homers in falling behind, 3-0, after two innings, and, obviously, there was no coming back, not with this offense.

The Philies are 5-18 in the month of May.

Or should we say Mayday?

"We’re trying to stay positive, as positive as we can throughout this stretch," Altherr said. "You know, it’s tough sometimes when things are going the way they are. We’re just going to keep being positive, keep trying to bring as much energy as we can to win some games."