Inside the Box Score: Life Without Utley and Howard

Inside the Box Score: Life Without Utley and Howard

Everybody was bracing for a reduction in run production with the Phillies this season. Four games in, it's even worse than many imagined.

The Fightins have managed to scrounge together a paltry eight runs in 37 innings this season. That total is good for dead last in scoring in the National League, and only half a run per game ahead of the Minnesota Twins for worst in all of Major League Baseball.

Some folks are preaching patience, because after all, it is only four games. That said, while the Phils likely can't keep up the current pace, which would set a record for offensive futility over a 162-game season, there is little reason to believe things are going to magically turn around at the plate.

Not until Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return anyway. Without their five-time All Star second baseman, or the 2006 NL Most Valuable Player at first, the Phillies are getting next to nothing out of the right side of the infield in the early goings.

Second base is one thing. Freddy Galvis has started all four games in place of Utley so far, going 1-for-13 with a walk in 14 plate appearances -- good for the lowest batting average and on-base percentage in the clubhouse. Additionally, they've had trouble turning the lineup over when Galvis bats eighth. The pitcher's spot led off an inning six times in the first two games against Pittsburgh.

At least he has an excuse though. Galvis is a rookie who had all of 33 Triple A appearances under his belt prior to making his big league debut on Opening Day. We were already dealing in lowered expectations until Utley gets back.

Simply put, first base is a mess.

Who's On First?
Charlie Manuel has already started four different players through four games. The combination of John Mayberry, Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, and Ty Wigginton has come up with four hits and two walks in 29 total plate appearances, wherever they happen to be playing that day.

Officially, the position is 2-for-16 with one run scored, no walks, and no RBIs. The first baseman had come up fifth in the order for the Pirates series, but was dropped down to six against the Marlins on Monday.

Plus, defensive lapses at the bag have cost Philly as well -- which, of course, has nothing to do with run production, but is quickly becoming a problem all the same.

On Sunday, Wigginton dropped a throw from Brian Schneider that would have made it two outs and none on in the seventh inning. Instead, the runner was safe, and Pittsburgh wound up scoring two in the frame, helping launch their eventual come-from-behind victory in the ninth.

Against Miami on Monday, Mayberry inexplicably backed up Cole Hamels on a bunt, then watched as the pitcher gunned the ball to the imaginary man at first base. The runner advanced to third on the error, and eventually came across for an insurance run in the sixth.

Howard may not be the greatest defensive first baseman ever, but he usually catches the ball, and at least knows where he's supposed to be.

Mainly they're missing his pop though, and not just the long ball. Without Howard and Utley in the lineup, the Phils have seemingly lost the ability to score quickly in any situation.

Extras Base Hits
The Phillies have four extra base hits this year, the lowest total in baseball. Hunter Pence has two. Mayberry has one. Galvis, as you probably heard, has the other -- it was arguably the biggest hit of the season so far, which is saying something.

By contrast, look at the top of the order. Shane Victornio has four hits, none for extra bases. Placido Polanco doesn't have any either, although that shouldn't come as much of a surprise -- he went the entire 2011 season with fewer than 20 XBHs. And Jimmy Rollins, who bats third now remember... you get the idea.

The only game in which the Phils scored more than two runs just happens to be the only game where they had multiple extra base knocks, which most likely is not a coincidence.

It's difficult to score runs when you're only ever advancing one base at a time. The Fightins can play small ball all they like, and if they do it right, they'll even win some games. Had they managed to manufacture one more run in either loss to the Pirates, they might have swept the series -- and the opportunities were there.

That was the Pirates though. The Marlins drove the ball on Monday. They found gaps, and yes, they even went yard a few times. They were able to strike quickly, producing runs out of one or two at bats, three at most.

In order to score by taking one base at a time, a chain of players have to do multiple things right, both at the plate and on the base paths. Even then, they're often giving away outs to score a run or two, which makes rallying unlikely.

Not that it wasn't already. Without Utley and Howard, the Phillies are severely lacking in big hits, and nobody has stepped up to replace them. Guys like Rollins and Victorino will get theirs, and Pence can really turn it on.

But as long as the right side of the infield continues to resemble a black hole, it doesn't seem that will be enough. Having two automatic outs in a lineup with no power is probably too much for any team to overcome more often than not, even with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels in a rotation.

Embiid Liives: Sixers lose opener but Process secured

Embiid Liives: Sixers lose opener but Process secured


852 days after Joel Embiid was drafted -- a number becoming as familiar to Sixer fans as any Cubs fan could tell you how many years it's been since their last World Series -- he actually played in a regular season game for the Philadelphia 76ers. He lives. He exists. He has a Basketball-Reference stat line. It looks like this: 

The feeling of triumph was tangible at the not-Wells Fargo Center well before it became clear that the Sixers might actually have a shot at beating the Oklahoma City Thunder last night. Embiid's every move was treated with breathless anticipation and rapturous cheering, as well it should have been. Even Dario Saric got his name chanted at him in the first quarter, during his very first regular-season trip to the free-throw line. It was less a basketball game than a Bar Mitzvah, celebrating that these two guys we'd waited a combined four years for were at last becoming full-grown Sixers before our very eyes. It couldn't have mattered much less whether or not we won the game. 

That said, hey, we almost won the game! The Sixers led most of the way, including by six fairly deep into the fourth quarter. If not for the Internet-pandering greatness of Russell Westbrook -- 32-12-9 on good shooting, including a handful of tough pull-ups to make the difference late -- the Sixers might've won their first home opener since Process Genesis three years ago. It didn't happen, and a couple highly flustered 76ers possessions late in this one would probably make this loss pretty frustrating if it happened in February, which it probably still will. Last night? W/e. Let's watch those Embiid highlights again. 

And oh, were they high. It was a night that I imagine will soon become typical for our Jojo: He didn't have a great game, and he was still amazing. 6-16 from the floor with four turnovers and 0 assists is hardly the most efficient night Joel will have for us; a couple times he tried to do way too much in the half-court, and it would've been embarrassing if how much fun he was having even in his screw-ups wasn't so inspiring. He didn't know what spots to run to in transition, he was a non-factor on the boards late, and he probably needs to cool it with his coast-to-coast experiments for a little bit. (Actually, what am I saying? Do You forever, Joel, just watch for those tiny dudes sneaking into your blind spot.) 

But he did get to the line for eight FTs (including two on a rip-through move that most ten-year pros can't successfully execute) and made seven of 'em, he did grab nearly every rebound in sight in the first quarter (even though he only ended with seven for the game), he did get an early swat on Russ (and deterred countless other shots), and yes, he did hit his first-ever three-pointer (and even sent the not-WFC crowd into a frenzy with a couple he missed). Even on an off night, where Thunder big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams — who my mother now hates — got the best of him on multiple occasions, and he radiated a total lack of NBA experience, he still scored 20 points in 22 minutes and kept us in a game we had no right being anywhere near. He is going to be DOMINANT. And soon. So soon.

Technically there were also ten other Sixers who took the court for us last night, so it's probably worth humoring a couple of their contributions as well. For all the shit that I gave him about cruising through the preseason, I thought Robert Covington was awesome last night — super-active on defense, making good decisions on offense, and hitting a couple huge three-pointers. Jerami Grant was similarly impressive, causing his typical chaos under the basket on both ends and even hitting a couple jumpers; probably shouldn't get super-used to that. And even though Gerald Henderson's night was most memorable for him bricking a three and coughing up the ball in critical late possessions, he also set the evening off with a gorgeous alley-oop slam, and played tough perimeter defense — the kind we just haven't had available to unleash on opposing point guards the last few years — on Westbrook, even if he was ultimately undone by Russ's sorcery.

Special kudos to a couple of our backcourt guys, though: In his first regular-season start for the 76ers — and his first regular-season start for any NBA team in seven seasons — Sergio Rodriguez was exactly what we needed: He attracted the Thunder trap but was able to easily navigate out of it, getting good looks and driving lanes for our perimeter guys, and he hit open shots when passed out to himself. He finished with 12 points, nine assists, and no turnovers, just what we'd hope for from our imported point guard. And Nik Stauskas packed a little extra heat for the bloggers who called for his dismissal all summer (as well as some of the fans that booed him — booed him! — last night), attacking the basket like his roster spot depended on it, finishing with an eye-catching 13 on 5-6 shooting. (I never stopped believing in you, Sauce.) (Well, maybe I sorta did, but at least I was rooting for you to make the team, if partly for selfish reasons.) 

On the other hand, it was something of a rough night for Dario Saric. He did fight for seven rebounds, and should laudable toughness on both sides of the ball, but the looks just weren't falling for Our Friend Dario last night — just 2-12, and some of the misses were brutal — and he was late on a couple rotations that led to open Thunder jumpers (Thumpers?) early. And despite showing his advanced touch early with three consecutive scores, Jahlil Okafor ran out of gas pretty quickly in this one, ending with just eight points on 4-10 shooting (with three TOs), and stood virtually no chance against the Thunder on the boards and in the pick-and-roll. Better nights to come for both. 

In the end, though, only one thing really mattered for the Sixers and the 20,000 fans — about 10,000 of them clad in Sixers jerseys, and mostly non-Iverson ones! — at the Center last night, and that's Joel Embiid, our beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy, officially becoming a player of record in the NBA. When a full stadium of Philly Phaithful chants "TRUST-THE-PRO-CESS!" while JoJo cackles from the free-throw line line, it means Our Once and Always Dark Lord's work is finally done. Hinkie died for our sins. Embiid is risen. 

Look at how much fun this season is already, with Simmons still in street clothes and Nerlens still Netflix-binging in Alabama with his phone in the other room. What's left to trust, anyway?

Despite shooting struggles, Dario Saric impressive in Sixers' regular-season debut

Despite shooting struggles, Dario Saric impressive in Sixers' regular-season debut

After two years filled with will he or won't he speculation over joining the Sixers, this certainly wasn't the effort Dario Saric had envisioned for his NBA regular-season debut. 

"I felt comfortable, but sometimes it's not your day and this was my bad day," said Saric, who scored five points in the Sixers' 103-97 season-opening loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I'll try to watch the video and fix what I can fix and move forward."

The raw numbers look bad. The rookie forward shot 2 of 12 from the field, including 0 of 4 from three-point range. He did notch seven rebounds and two assists, but also contributed two turnovers.

But as you know, numbers don't always tell the story. 

Saric displayed the offensive versatility and headiness on defense that had the Sixers salivating over him for two years while he played for Anadolu Efes in Turkey. He was able to penetrate in the lane several times against the Thunder on Wednesday night and used pump/head fakes to get his defender off balance, but the shots just didn't fall.

"He struggled with his shot" Sixers head coach Bett Brown said. "But just the physical play, some of the intellect of guarding things suddenly that we all might not pay attention to that coaches do. You see him go out of his way to make a rotation, that he just felt the game. I think that some of his pick-and-roll reads on trying to hit cutters, trying to slow up rollers and still go back to shooters like (Ersan) Ilyasova is, stood out to me.

"He's intelligent. He is a smart basketball player. The stats will show that he didn't make some of his shots, but I think that just that gamesmanship, that intellect stands out to me." 

The only time Saric looked a tad overmatched is when OKC went to its mustachioed muscle tandem of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter inside. After the game, Brown lamented leaving Saric in for so long against that pairing, which combined for 33 points and 17 rebounds on the night.

Teammate Jahlil Okafor tried to come to Saric's aid in those moments, but returning from a torn meniscus and on a minutes restriction, his plan wasn't exactly met with enthusiasm by the coaching staff.

"I actually kind of hinted to the coaches that I wanted to play with him (Embiid) because they put Kanter and Adams in," Okafor said. "I was kind of hinting to the coaches that if they want to play big ball we can play big ball with them."

Their response?

"Stay disciplined. Have your lawyer call my lawyer," Okafor said with a laugh. "That's the go-to line."

Even with Saric's few hiccups on defense, Okafor is confident the 22-year-old Croatian will be able to hold his own against NBA players and get the buckets to start dropping on the offensive end.

"I love Dario. It's been a pleasure having him around," Okafor said. "He's such a selfless guy.

"He did struggle a little bit with his shot, but all of the shots that he missed are shots that we know he can make and shots that we've seen him make since he's been here. So we're good. We know what he's going to do."