It's early, but Phillies are off to worrisome start

It's early, but Phillies are off to worrisome start

April 11, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Ryan Howard is hitting .200 this season with 13 strikeouts and one home run. (AP)

Ryne Sandberg does some pretty good deadpan. He probably doesn’t even realize it.

After the Brewers swept the Phillies – the first time the local club has lost its first three games at home in seven years – the manager tried to find something positive to say.

“The good news is, they’re going out of town and we have a new series,” Sandberg said.

Jimmy Fallon couldn’t have delivered a better line on The Tonight Show. (Here's some good news...the Brewers are done bludgeoning us.) But Sandberg’s monologue didn’t end there. Asked to evaluate why the Phillies are off to a not-so-inspiring 3-6 start, Sandberg offered an entertaining (if troublesome) explanation.

“We need to swing the bats and score some runs,” Sandberg said. “We need to play defense. And we need to pitch. With the new series, that’s the goal.”

Score runs. Play defense. Pitch. Is that all? And if that's the goal for the new series, what was the goal for the last series?

You are forgiven if you don’t find all this quite so amusing. The Phillies have lost twice as many games as they’ve won. That is not how the club or the fans wanted the season to begin. And yet – once more, with feeling – it’s early. Repeat that to yourself after each game. It might help you sleep.

Think of the first nine games as an exit poll. It is a small sample size, and it does not necessarily reflect the ultimate outcome. "Not necessarily" being the operative part of that last sentence. Nine games represent just 5.5 percent of the season. When the full returns are in, we might be left with a very different idea of these Phillies. Or we might look back and realize the early results portended what the year would be like all along. Hope that last scenario isn’t the case. Because if it is, this will be a long and ugly season.

Don’t mention that to Ryan Howard. He didn’t see the first handful of games as half or even mostly empty. According to the first baseman, the Phils’ fortunes doth overfloweth (ye ol’ English makes it sound merrier and not so implausible).

"In all actuality,” Howard said before Thursday’s loss, “we've actually played very well this year. I disagree with everyone else. Our record doesn't reflect that right now, but I think we've played well."

The reflexive response from a certain fan faction after something like that is usually: “Well, what would you expect him to say?” Not sure even the blind-faith crowd could defend Howard’s point. Howard made a defensible argument about how it’s still early and they’re not panicking. Which was fine. But the notion that they’ve somehow played well is so far removed from reality that you wonder if he was having a laugh and trying out his own Sandberg-esque deadpan routine.

Howard’s slash line is .200/.317/.343, by the way. He has 13 strikeouts, one home run and six RBIs. He has three hits in his last 22 at-bats. But, in his defense, he didn’t claim he’s “actually played very well this year.” He said they’ve “actually played very well this year.”

About that: the Phillies have scored 41 runs. That’s good for 12th in baseball. Not bad on the surface. But then you remember how and when those runs were scored. The Phils had 21 combined runs in their first games against Texas and Chicago. In the other seven games, they managed 20 total runs. Lots of output in two games. Not much in the rest.

In the field, the Phils have committed 10 errors. In nine games. That’s more than one miscue per outing. (Math is useful.)

The relievers have been something on the order of dreadful. In 26 2/3 innings of work, the bullpen has surrendered 19 runs (sixth most in MLB). Out of 10 inherited runners, six have scored. And the 'pen has blown two of three save opportunities.

The starters, meanwhile, are 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA. Opponents have a slash line of .300/.345/.465.

Despite Howard’s insistence, none of that qualifies as playing very well this year – not even if you squint and pretend the fuzzy numbers are favorable.

But it’s been only nine games. Plenty of baseball left to play. Howard was right. It’s not time to panic. He didn’t say anything about worrying, though.

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