Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Track Records

As if to prove my recent concerns wrong, the Phillies last night beat up on the hapless Expos for a second straight game. I'll take a break from pouring water on everyone's ecstasy and let someone else serve as today's designated buzzkiller. Like the Inquirer's Phil Sheridan, who notes that this year's Phils:

are one full game behind the 2003 Phillies. At this same point a year ago, the Phillies had a 41-34 record. They are 40-35 after last night. And yes, it's nice to beat up on a 22-year-old pitcher making his big-league debut, but there aren't going to be many of those the rest of the way.

A year ago, Ed Wade and Larry Bowa talked about how the team was talented enough. The Phillies just had to play up to their capabilities. A year ago, Wade and Bowa cited injuries and those unexpectedly hot Atlanta Braves as reasons their team seemed lacking.

Here's Bowa from the June 22, 2003, Inquirer, explaining why he believed his struggling team would hit better: "I think track records, for the most part, don't lie."

Here's Wade from yesterday's Daily News: "I think this team has the ability to play at a higher level... . You look at their track records and you expect them to do better."

A year ago, you could give Wade and Bowa the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the Phillies would heat up with the summer, putting together some kind of run at the Braves. When Wade essentially stood pat at the trade deadline, he deserved a little bit of slack. After all, the historically small-thinking Phillies still had vertigo from throwing big money at Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood.

This year, the slack is gone. The rope is taut, and it is stretched over a deep, wide chasm.

I'm not sure Reading's Ryan Howard is the answer, as Bill Conlin has dreamily speculated twice (here and here) this week, but I do think that standing pat would be fatal. Look at it this way: Assume the Phils and Marlins continue to jockey for the division lead the rest of the way, with the Mets and Braves kind of hanging around. Assume that the N.L. East is too weak a division to send more than one team to the playoffs. Neither of these assumptions is farfetched given what's happened so far this year. Given that, whom do you put your money on? The defending World Series champs? The league's best team over the last decade? Or the underachieving squad with no true ace, an inconsistent offense, a legacy of failure, and a jittery, unimaginative manager who lacks the respect of his players?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Bell Towers

Maybe it was the ass-kicking I gave them yesterday. Maybe it was the presence of the missus and her sis at Citizens Bank Park. Maybe it was attendance of my brother, who happened to be at Veterans Stadium the last time a Phillie hit for the cycle. Whatever caused it, the end result was an its-about-time 14-6 spanking of the Expos last night. David Bell hit for the cycle, Kevin Millwood got enough run support to mitigate his location problems, and the Phils enjoyed a laugher, making CBP a very happy place to be. Or so I'm told.

Meanwhile, both papers dutifully report that Ed Wade has been working the phones to try to land some help for his underachieving team. The Phillies are standing firm in their refusal to deal uber prospects Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels, and Wade is confident that the market will ease as the July 31 trading deadline draws closer.

He'd better hope so. The Phillies simply cannot afford not to make a major move; whether that means a managerial change or a significant trade is for Wade to determine. Larry Bowa looks more in over his head with each passing day, and if Wade truly thinks -- as he said yesterday -- that "this team has the ability to play at a higher level," he will have no choice but to sack him. Bowa, after all, would be the variable to explain why so many players are underperforming to such a high degree. If he thinks Bowa's not the problem, then he needs to get better players.

But if Ed Wade thinks that his manager and his current roster are sufficient to carry the Phillies into the playoffs, then he should be looking for a new job come November.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Bank Errors

The Phillies limp home from their lackluster trip to Montreal and Boston facing something of a crossroads. During the crucial 14-game homestand that begins tonight against the Expos, they will hit the midway point of the season, and if you can feel all of the preseason promise unraveling amidst waves of maddening inconsistency, you're not alone. A Citizen's Blog, in a post with the understated headline "Not The Best Week Ever...," agrees with the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury, who has spent two days hammering the Fightin's for their underachieving ways. Yesterday he pleaded for the high-priced payroll to suck it up and play better on a more regular basis, rather than regressing to the seasonlong "up one stair, down two" approach that has the Phils needing to jump over several teams just to land the wild card slot. Today Salisbury rightly challenges the clubhouse chest-thumpers who still see the Phils as the division's best team by asking: "When will the Phillies start playing like the team to beat?"

The Phillies, as currently constructed, are decidedly not the team to beat. Despite what was on paper a talent upgrade over last season, the Phils drift along in a mediocre National League East, unwilling or unable to grab hold of a division that should be theirs for the taking. They play with no passion, no hunger, no desperation; watching them mail it in during their worst losses leaves you thinking that maybe they don't realize they still need to go out and, you know, play, that the guys in the other dugout aren't simply going to throw up their hands and forfeit games.

The homestand, you'd think, offers the chance for the Phillies finally to build some momentum. Um, maybe not. Citizens Bank Park has hardly been the oasis that Bill Giles and David Montgomery envisioned all those years ago. The Phillies are barely over .500 in South Philly, which could spell trouble for Larry Bowa, since it's hard to envision that Ed Wade wouldn't do something -- anything -- in the increasingly likely event that the team fails to blast into the All-Star Break on any kind of hot streak. As they say, you can't fire the players -- well, not all of them, anyway, and I don't think anyone pretends that another retread reliever is going to turn these Phils into pennant winners.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Basket Case

With the NBA draft now bursting with high schoolers and Europeans, it's more of an accomplishment than ever before for a college team to have two of its players selected in the first round. For that school to fall well outside the collection of basketball factories is virtually unheard of. So many congratulations to Saint Josephs' University and its two first-rounders, Jameer Nelson (selected by the Nuggets at No. 20 and traded to the Magic) and Delonte West (Celtics, No. 24). While Nelson's selection was disappointingly low in the first round, West was chosen higher than most anticipated, so perhaps things evened out in some cosmic sense. Congrats, as well, to Hawks head coach Phil Martelli, whose ability unselfishly to adapt his own coaching style to fit the skill sets of his players enabled Nelson and West to shine during Saint Joseph's dazzling 2003-04 season.

Patchett Job

The infuriating thing about Ann Patchett's acclaimed novel Bel Canto is that it should have been better. Don't get me wrong -- it's a perfectly fine, readable piece of literary fiction. But as much as I tried, I never reached that moment when I felt compelled to strip out every other activity in my life in order to finish the book. Easing my way to the last page felt more like an obligation, and that's really no way to spend a reading life.

Things begin promisingly, with terrorists crashing a party at the home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. Their intended target, the president, fails to make the party, however, and what ensues is a months-long hostage situation during which the terrorists and their captives grow close to each other. As a result, the tension leaks out of the novel with each passing page, and by the time Patchett tacks on her rushed climax, you just want the damn thing to resolve itself already.

Patchett writes well enough, but none of the characters is especially well drawn, and the terrorists' motivation is rendered only sketchily. I'm all for trim books, but Bel Canto aims to be a weighty book without the weight, and Patchett can't quite pull it off. We're meant to be as enraptured by the power of song -- the only female captive is a world-famous American soprano booked for the party -- as the book's other characters, terrorists as well as prisoners. But Patchett, for all her gifts, fails, if only slightly, to evoke the kind of transcendence needed to spark such ecstasy in the reader.

Bel Canto copped the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and was a nominee for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award. The blurbs sprinkled on the cover of the paperback version are numerous and significant. Yet for all the praise, I can't help but think that Patchett was rewarded not for actually hitting the high note but simply for making a valiant effort.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Is Now the Time?

I want to believe. Really, I do.

But these Phillies, like last year's, have a hell of a way of testing a fan's faith.

It's hard to believe in a team that opens a critical stretch of games by listlessly dropping two of three -- including yesterday's 3-2 snoozer -- to the bottom-dwelling Expos.

It's hard to believe in a team that can manage only 17 hits and nine runs over those three games.

It's hard to believe in a team that contentedly starts Jason Michaels and Doug Glanville in the outfield on the same day a potential wild-card rival, Houston, pulls the trigger on a major deal that lands studly centerfielder Carlos Beltran. (As Brian at the Citizens Report concludes: "Steve Finley, anyone?")

Sure, it's just June. But the stakes are high. And a month ago, we were saying, "It's just May." The month before that: "It's just April." And each month, no significant movement in the standings, and, excepting the fine West Coast trip of May, no significant upgrade in level of play.

I want to believe.

I'm just not sure I can.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Off the Record, On the Q.T., and Very Hush-Hush

A month or so ago, some dude was able to slip inside the Real World house at 3rd and Arch and take some photos before the cops pinched him. But according to the Daily News's Dan Gross, a TRW producer offered such sketchy testimony that the charges were dropped recently for lack of evidence. Gross adds that the "apparent lack of interest in prosecution falls in line with the show's desire not to make waves while in town. If the 'Real World' had its druthers, the show would be in and out of town before anybody noticed, as producers say has been the case when taping elsewhere. A high-profile labor dispute in March helped put the kibosh on those privacy plans." Ah, Philadelphia: The City That Can't Get Out of Its Own Way.

Now Hear This

Less than two weeks after this site's redesign, one which now includes the music to which I'm currently listening, All-Baseball's Jon Weisman, Mike Carminati, and Will Carroll check in with posts on the music to which they're currently listening (or to which they once did listen). Coincidence?

The record that has me excited right now is Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism. I need to listen to it some more to really wrap my arms around it, but my early impression is that of a pleasing, relatively stripped-down sound that nicely fills the gap between somnolent, brooding singer-songwriters and the dull, unimaginative twentysomething bands that comprise what passes for modern rock. There's a genuineness about Death Cab's record, a kind of thoughtful passion, that really grows on you.

The Rheal World

Kevin Millwood and Rheal Cormier answered the bell last night, Billy Wagner returned to his automatic ways, and Jim Thome continues to be absolutely locked in -- add 'em together and the sum is a fairly ho-hum 5-2 Phillies win that enabled them to keep pace with the Marlins, who shut out Atlanta.

Meanwhile, the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury breaks the news that Cormier and his wife are eagerly awaiting the chance to become United States citizens. Cormier sounds like a really good guy, and I hope he and his wife get their wish. Well, and that he's as effective for the rest of the season as he was last night.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Rumor Has It

New York has Gawker, Washington has Wonkette, and Los Angeles has Defamer -- profane, gossipy, bitchy, and devastatingly funny bloggers who chronicle the many foibles of their towns' respective rich, famous, and beautiful people. (Back when he was posting regularly, Boats Against the Current trained his typically sharp eye on their sites here and here.)

Philadelphia is a world-class city in many, many ways, but when it comes to skewering our celebs, we may as well be Gary, Indiana.

Smothered by the draconian standards of print editors and hamstrung by our relative paucity of stars, the Inquirer's Michael Klein and the Daily News's Dan Gross are but pale imitators, content to politely discuss the tipping habits of local television anchors and radio DJs. The Inky's new gossip blog, Spilled Inq, is even worse, with staffer Kristin Holmes doing little more than rewriting wire-service copy and the rumors dug up by other papers. Juicy, huh?

Meanwhile, Gawker, Wonkette, and Defamer gleefully and recklessly destroy their usually deserving targets with lacerating, borderline-libelous posts that are as hilarious as they are observant. Witness Defamer's conclusion to a post about Mary-Kate Olsen's checking into rehab to take care of a who-could-have-seen-that-coming eating disorder:

Saddest of all in this troubling Olsen chapter is that from now on, Ashley will henceforth be known as the Fat Twin. Thanks a lot, Mary-Kate.

That's high, high comedy, friends. That's Tina Fey-funny.

On special occasions, they get to approach the same story from different angles, such as Defamer's and Wonkette's respective snarkfests over the nasty divorce between wannabe senator Jack Ryan and smoking-hot actress Jeri Ryan. Compare that to the local breathless coverage a few years ago of the overrated Monica Malpass's split, and Philly comes off looking, once again, painfully parochial.

Of the three, my personal favorite is Wonkette, and not just because she's a not unattractive strawberry blonde with an impressive rack. (Though, um, that certainly doesn't hurt her cause.) There's something perversely satisfying about seeing politicians and journalists, so quick to puff up with indignation over the sins of their fellow citizens, punctured with the darts of their own hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, back here in the City of Brotherly Love, we're stuck with scintillating items on the round of golf Will Smith played when he was back home for his sister's wedding, and the identity theft suffered by a former city councilman. Wake me when they write about Cecily Tynan.

Rotation Play

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? (Or: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?) On the injury front, Randy Wolf should come off the DL and start in Boston this weekend, while Vicente Padilla is likely on the shelf for another month or so with triceps tendonitis and a bone bruise. Yes, injuries and rainouts have placed undue stress on the staff, but the fact remains that the Phils' once-proud pitching has slipped to 11th in the National League in ERA and 12th in hits allowed. Jane Conroy of Phanatic Phollow Up has done a nice job lately of supplementing her recaps with some cogent observations, including this zinger from Monday:

"Unless you've worn the uniform you can't understand the ramifications of what this means to our team," manager Larry Bowa has said regarding the pitching woes his team is facing.

I understand, Larry. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that�s a tough position.

Tough or not, the drop-off can't be pegged entirely to external factors. "Ace" Kevin Millwood, for example, hasn't won in more than six weeks, leading the Inky's Jim Salisbury, traveling with the Phillies in Montreal, to file a strongly worded and entirely appropriate piece demanding that he step up and earn the considerable scratch he's being paid:

Millwood has to walk into the Phillies' clubhouse tonight and tell his mates to jump on his back because he's going to show them the way.

Of course, he won't do that. That's not his style. But he can do it in action. ...

Sure, it's still only June. But these are the nights when pitchers earn reputations, and it's time Millwood started reversing the one he's getting in Philadelphia. ...

Whether you're a Millwood fan or not, here's one reality: He's going to be in this rotation for the rest of the season -- next year he'll be someone else's enigma -- and this team is going nowhere if he doesn't start turning things around.

He may be miscast as a No. 1 starter. He may not be worth all that money. But none of that matters right now.

Kevin Millwood needs to start winning ball games, and he needs to start doing it now.

Bingo. I'm told that Millwood is a great guy, which is all well and good, but for 11 million bucks, I think I'd rather have a tool who can win 18 or 20 games. Millwood and the rest of the starters aren't the only culprits in the recent slide. To cite just a couple of relievers, it would be nice, don't you think, if Rheal Cormier and Roberto Hernandez stopped pitching softballs and started getting guys out.

Hmm. Guess I don't feel lucky these days.

And He Shall Be Livan

A day after telling the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki that, yeah, now would be a good time to pick up some Ws, the Phillies strolled into Montreal and sleepwalked through a 5-2 loss to the last-place Expos. Livan Hernandez shackled the Phils, allowing just four hits in seven innings, and the hometown nine were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

They're just not going to make this easy on themselves. Brian at the Citizens Report's hit the nail on the head when he wrote yesterday, "Big two weeks ahead of us, we can either keep the NL East in it, or we can seperate from the back. If history serves us correct, the standings will be probably the same come two weeks, with the Fish up one or two." Whaddya know, the Marlins rallied in the sixth and seventh to edge the Braves last night and reclaim the division lead. As much as most of us thought the Phillies would win the East with relative ease, it is becoming more and more apparent that they simply do not have the tools -- or the will -- to run away with anything.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Best Buds?

The Daily News's Sam Donnellon has quietly become one of Philadelphia's better sports columnists, but when I saw the headline of his piece today ("I'm a Bud man"), I steeled myself to fire off a scorching e-mail to him for having the temerity to defend Bud Selig.

Then I read the column.

Donnellon details the beneficial changes to the game of baseball (movie ads on bases notwithstanding) that have occurred under Selig's watch, and points out that many of them came after Selig made "hard and unpopular decisions." I'm still not certain that the Bud-man pulled the trigger on those moves entirely for the good of the game -- certainly lining the pockets of his fellow owners had to at least cross his mind -- but Donnellon still made me take a fresh look at the commish and his impact. As the column concludes: "The commissioner few of us wanted has his sport on solid ground. He did so ... by having the vision to run baseball like the entertainment business it is, and not some dead-weight corporation too tied to its glorious past to recognize and react to the reality of its present and future. He wasn't always smooth, right, or even forthcoming. He still isn't easy to like. But there's no arguing with the results."

Monday, June 21, 2004

Navel Gazing in Old City

This fall's premiere of MTV's The Real World: Philadelphia will present an enormous dilemma. On one hand, anything that makes my hometown look happening -- and make no mistake, TRW lacquers a hipster shine onto every city in which it tapes -- is okay in my book. On the other hand, my doctor has recommended I limit my daily exposure to self-absorption and angst, and if the staggering amounts being displayed by the twentysomething hotties currently drinking their way through San Diego are any indication, Philadelphia should be off the charts.

Every year, against virtually impossible odds, TRW producers somehow manage to find a more annoying, narcissistic, dysfunctional, whining group than the year before. If you told them Osama was a bisexual, nihilistic, pierced alcoholic who tells everyone within earshot he's just "misunderstood," by God, they'd find him and cast him.

The missus and I got sucked into a Real World: San Diego marathon last night, and I found myself literally shouting in frustration at the television screen. These people spend their days at low-stress, meaningless jobs, then spend their nights drinking wantonly, hooking up with each other, living in a palace stocked with the latest cutting-edge gadgets, and jetting to exotic world locales, all on MTV's dime, then have the audacity to face the camera and tearfully confess that they're thinking of leaving because their housemates won't put down the lid on the toilet when they're done.

I know I'm going to sound old -- like, Frank Fitzpatrick-old -- when I say this, but back when The Real World launched, way back in the early 1990s, the young people who put themselves on display seemed to be, if not genuine, then at least less obviously fake than today's posers. Some of them even approached average-looking, unlike the current genetically engineered freaks. Assholes like Puck were the exception, not the rule, while the kids in San Diego make Puck look like Mother Theresa.

Then again, perhaps a person who chronicles his beer and sandwich choices at baseball games shouldn't throw stones at others for being self-involved. In other words: Who do I think I'm kidding? Of course I'll watch. I'll look for restaurants and bars I've been to, and neighborhoods I've hung out in, and local landmarks, and I'll hope like hell that the show reflects Philadelphia's complex greatness. Yeah, that's it -- I'll be watching for civic reasons. Just don't tell my doctor.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

One Year, Four Days, 15 Hours, and 45 Minutes Later

Just over a year ago, seeking to boost my sagging personal writing life, I hung out my shingle here. The result has been a lot of late nights and lunch hours that have kept my writing sharp and provided a rewarding and most welcome sense of fulfillment. This was always supposed to be fun -- it certainly isn't profitable, at least not in a monetary sense -- and it overwhelmingly has been. Thanks to each and every one of you, whether a regular reader or the occasional lurker, who stops by to see what's here.

I'm not certain that I have the proper mix of topics that will keep me happiest. As I look back on more than 300 posts "on baseball, pop culture, and other important matters" since last June 15, I notice a great deal of baseball, a more modest amount of pop culture, and a handful of other myriad topics thrown in. The daily nature of the baseball season makes that an obvious topic for posting, but I'd like to balance things more so that what I write about better reflects my interests (TV, movies, books, music, the media, fatherhood, the lovely missus, good beer, current events, etc.).

Well, that's probably more than you needed to know, anyway. Feedback (e-mail, IM, carrier pigeon) is always encouraged, whether it's on something you see here or something you'd like to see. Peace ... let's go, Phillies ... and keep reading!

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Golden Moldies

There's an interesting discussion over at Dodger Thoughts regarding Jon Weisman's post about longtime Los Angeles Times baseball writer Ross Newhan accepting a voluntary buyout. Newhan has been with the paper for 37 years, and the vast majority of those commenting on Jon's post seem to feel he has grown stale and petty during that tenure.

The obvious dinosaurs in Philadelphia, the Inky's Bill Lyon and the Daily News's Bill Conlin, continue to write engaging and even occasionally provocative stuff, and neither ever wallows in the kind of mean-spirited, ad-hominem columnizing that seems to drag down so many sports sections today. Both seem to take seriously their status as senior newsroom staffers, and write with a combination of informed opinion and fine prose that belies their years in the field. In fact, it's a couple of Inquirer lightweights, Frank Fitzpatrick and Don McKee, who really ought to be put to pasture for ralphing up curmudgeonly bitchings that reflect only their personal tastes, not any type of legitimate, defensible opinion on, you know, sporting matters. It's the kind of stuff my buddies and I used to bat around our lunch table in high school, only older and less interesting.

Fitzpatrick's awful Morning Bytes column in yesterday's paper, for example, included a typical gratuitous shot at NASCAR and this old-guy chestnut:

Comcast has somehow convinced Larry Bowa to wear a mike and answer questions during games.

Look, if you want pre-packaged, pre-produced, gimmick-riddled, made-for-TV sporting events, tune in for [ESPN's airing of a] hot-dog-eating contest.

But please leave baseball alone.

If I want to hear Larry Bowa, I can watch his postgame news conference, listen to his pregame radio show, or read his comments in the next morning's newspaper. I really don't need a cheap in-game intrusion.

If you can listen closely, you can actually hear Fitzpatrick's body calcifying in his cubicle. Meanwhile, McKee led his Sunday Incites column last week with a piece about the 1953 NFL draft -- yes, more than half a century ago. At a time when newspapers are about as interesting to the average young person as hemorrhoid cream, these guys are pulling their pants up to their armpits, driving 30 in the left lane, and whining about how sports just ain't as good as they used to be. How does that sell papers again?

Byrd of Pray

Citizens Bank Park isn't much better than Veterans Stadium at handling the drenching humidity that smothers greater Philadelphia at this time every year. The open-air concourses allow you to catch some wind, but down in the seats, you really end up sweating it out. Such was my experience, anyway, on Thursday afternoon, when I lasted five innings against the Tigers before hustling back to work, and Friday night, when the missus and I endured seven dreadful innings of the Royals' pummeling of the Phils' patchwork pitching staff.

Brett Myers held Detroit in check for much of Thursday's game, and the Phillies supplemented his effort and Jason Michaels' timely hitting with some nifty glove work. Billy Wagner, alas, blew a save in the nightcap, and the Phils were unable to complete the sweep. Last night's game was largely forgettable, with Paul Abbott returning to form and getting whacked around the ballpark. The Phillies mounted a couple of mini-rallies but still ended up falling, 10-4.

The more interesting story to me last night was that the Phils burned through three centerfielders. This was a run-of-the-mill, nine-inning game, mind you. Marlon Byrd's troubles were thoroughly chronicled by the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki and, more ominously, by the Daily News's Bill Conlin yesterday, and when Byrd, hitting eighth, was replaced as part of a double-switch in the fifth, I nearly did a spit-take before realizing that beer at CBP is way too pricey a commodity to so waste. I don't know if it's an Ed Wade thing or a Larry Bowa thing, but somebody needs to decide who has the job and let him play.

Eric Milton finally quieted the Royals' bats, picking up the win in tonight's 4-2 victory, but the Phils' inconsistency, this time in the form of just six hits, again was on full display. I'll take the win, of course, but I just can't shake a nagging fear that this team, on paper the clear class of the division, will need to thrash and tear its way to a playoff spot.

Friday, June 18, 2004

A Royal Pain

Kudos to the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury for not taking the easy way out in previewing the Phils-Royals series that begins tonight at Citizens Bank Park. Rather than filing a by-the-numbers profile, as the Daily News's Paul Hagen does today, Salisbury writes of Dickie Noles's role in turning the tide of the 1980 World Series. Noles's knockdown of Kansas City's George Brett in Game 4 has been cited as a seminal moment, one that emphasized the Phils' unity in the face of adversity and cemented their destiny as that year's champions.

Both Noles and Brett discount such talk, but it's hard to deny the emotional impact of watching a future Hall of Famer get dusted by a young no-name mopping up in long relief. I remember watching Royals manager Jim Frey bolt out of his dugout and yap with the home plate umpire in protest, and I remember Pete Rose, in one of his finest moments as a Phillie, telling Frey, in essence, to sit his ass back down on the bench. I also recall Brett standing off to the side, waiting for the rhubarb to end, an almost amused look on his face. Salisbury's evocative and well-reported story is well worth reading.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

They Feel Our Pain

Turns out we in the blogosphere aren't the only ones underwhelmed by the Phillies' inconsistency over the first half of the season. Today's Inquirer features several team members voicing disappointment in the squad's performance, going much further than Larry Bowa, who has treaded pretty lightly this season.

The Phils' lackadaisical play was on full display Saturday, when I was in Minneapolis to watch them play the Twins. It's difficult to decide on the bigger disappointment -- the Phillies' docile acceptance of their 6-1 defeat or the dreadfully synthetic, Arena Football-like venue that is the Metrodome. The game's storyline was pretty simple: Curtis Silva handcuffed the Fightin's, while Kevin Millwood was doomed by one rough inning.

Now, when I played freshman high school baseball many years ago, our coach, Mr. Burrough, occasionally would spy his players mentally drifting, shall we say, on the field or in the basepaths. He'd pop out of the dugout, cup his hands together, and boom, in a voice that carried like a foghorn across the water, "C'MON, [OFFENDING PLAYER], GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME!"

That phrase was on mind in the sixth, when Bobby Abreu took the bat out of Jim Thome's hands with his unsuccessful attempt to swipe second with two outs. If you're going to run when you're down by four and your biggest power threat is up, you'd better damn well make it. Thome, leading off the seventh, naturally fired his 399th career homer over the rightfield wall, but instead of trailing by just a pair of runs, the Phils were still three behind, thanks to Abreu's brain cramp, and never threatened again. Some Shallow Center readers have written to defend Abreu after a previous post about his taking plays off; well, this is exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about. Bobby, get your head in the game.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A Bit of Housekeeping

I'm just back from a few days on the road without Internet access, which is why I haven't posted lately. Look for new stuff soon.

Also, my apologies to those who were shut out of commenting. I thought I had configured the settings so that anyone could post, but apparently not. Regardless, that problem should be fixed, so, by all means, fire away.

As always, thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Call to Arms

The Phillies' suddenly potent offense -- Phanatic Phollow Up attributes the high run totals to "a taste of the American League and the designated hitter" -- has enabled the team to overcome shaky pitching and take two of three from the White Sox and Twins. Yet a couple of local observers are troubled, and rightly, I think, by the $93 million payroll's stumbles and by the club's apparent complacency regarding such underachievement. Columnists Paul Hagen and Bob Ford both direct some hard, necessary questions to general manager Ed Wade.

Writing in yesterday's Daily News, Hagen acknowledges the effects of the team's bad health, but grimly recalls Wade rearranging deck chairs in 2003 while the Phils' ship sank:

... [T]he point is this: Too often, the Phillies seem to use skewed guidelines to orient themselves in the baseball universe.

Example: As long as they are above .500 and within a couple of games of the Marlins at this point of the season, they don't appear overly concerned.

Example: As long as the turnstiles keep clicking at spiffy new Citizens Bank Park, some appear to believe they're having a splendid season.

Time out.

There's only one question the people who run this team should be asking themselves. They should be asking themselves if, all things considered, this $93 million team is playing up to its capabilities.

If the answer is no, then they need to look long and hard at the situation and do whatever it takes to fix it.

Now Is The Time. Remember?

Maybe the necessary moves will be unpopular with the fans or the media. Who cares? Nobody knows what the future will bring. Nobody knows if Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton and Placido Polanco will be back next season. Nobody knows when an injury could strike Jim Thome or Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu or Mike Lieberthal.

The time has come for this organization to demonstrate it can make tough and dirty decisions when needed.

And if they ask themselves that question and the answer is yes, the strong opinion here is that they're mistaken.

It's early yet. There's still a lot of baseball left to be played. But an uneasy memory is starting to set in. It's general manager Ed Wade consistently insisting down the stretch last year that the Phillies were good enough to win and go deep into the playoffs.

And that he was still saying it after the team faded to third and finished out of the playoffs.

In today's Inquirer, meanwhile, Ford focuses on the Phillies' sagging staff. Originally thought to be the team's primary strength, the pitching corps has been plagued by injuries and poor performances, and Ford fears the Phils, who should feast on mediocre competition between now and the All-Star Break, instead could waste a prime chance to zoom past Florida in National League East:

While nothing says [Paul] Abbott and [Brian] Powell can't be effective in the short term for the Phillies, perhaps even until Wolf and Padilla return, baseball tends to grind quick fixes into slow dust by the end of a long season. It also rarely rewards sore-armed pitchers with speedy comebacks, so the concern that a promising season is slipping away is a legitimate one. What general manager Ed Wade has done to mortar the gaps has been unimpressive so far.

Aside from the lame arms and the lame replacements, there is fair reason to wonder whatever became of Millwood, who starts today against the Twins. Since beginning the 2003 season with an 8-3 record, Millwood has been unreliable over a full calendar year (10-13 since June 8, 2003). He is 29 years old, should be in the solid prime of his career, and was touted as a potential No. 1 starter when the Phillies traded for him. His current 4.85 ERA is highest among the five regular starters, and Millwood seems as mystified about that as anyone else, particularly while giving up four or more earned runs in four of his last five starts. Did last year's precipitous swoon begin early this time around? ...

What other challenges the Phillies still face this year -- whether the return to form of closer Billy Wagner, the vexingly slow development of Marlon Byrd or the team's regrettable habit of not hitting for days at a time -- they are small compared to the gaping pothole created by a weak pitching rotation. Better teams than the Phillies have seen an entire season fall into such a pit, never to be seen again.

Now would be a great time for the front office to assume the hole won't fill itself.

Excellent questions, all, but without obvious answers, unfortunately. Good pitchers don't just show up on the waiver wire, and the Phils already have given up some prospects, through both trades and lost draft picks, limiting their ability to swing a meaningful trade. But I supposed that's why Ed Wade gets paid the big bucks, right?

Does This Make Me Look Phat?

Welcome to the new look of Shallow Center. I like the cleaner look, the sans-serif font, and the ability to embed comments directly, without use of a third party. (To that end, if you'd like to leave a comment but are not a Blogger user, simply select the "Anonymous" option and jot down your thoughts; feel free to include your name, home page, and/or e-mail address.) You'll also notice an updated links list, as well as a peek into what I'm reading, listening to, and watching these days. (Not for nothing is this a pop culture as well as a baseball blog.) I'll be tweaking further over the next several days. As always, do drop me a line and let me know what you think. Thanks again for reading and making this a very fulfilling activity for me.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Ricky Sticky Savvy | Nice show of resilience tonight by the Phillies, who shook off a Minnesota comeback by posting a five-spot in the ninth and downing the Twins, 11-6. Jim Thome chased home a pair with a bases-loaded, ground-rule double, and Ricky Ledee, who has been an invaluable player since coming to the Phils in 2002, boomed an upper-deck homer, his second tater of the game, to cement the lead. Billy Wagner looked completely recovered from his injury-caused respite and tossed a 1-2-3 inning to seal the win.

In Detroit, meanwhile, the Tigers doubled up the Marlins, 8-4, enabling the Phillies to draw to within a game-and-a-half of the Fish.

I'll be at the Metrodome Saturday night for the second game of the Phils-Twins series. With any luck I'll get to thank Terry Mulholland, now hurling for the Twins, for his role in helping the '93 Phillies reach the World Series.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire | As the Phillies and White Sox sit through a rain delay in Chicago, I find myself more and more bothered by yesterday's revelation that Amaury Telemaco had been pitching since spring training with an achy shoulder and elbow. Last year's reliable long reliever and spot starter has spent 2004 looking entirely out of sorts, as the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki points out:

Telemaco went 0-2 with a 4.88 ERA in 20 appearances. One major-league scout said in spring training that it looked like he was pitching hurt. But Telemaco never said a word to anybody.

Isn't Telemaco's silence something of a breach of trust with the Phillies? If he was hurting for the last three months, shouldn't he have told someone so that he didn't enter games without his best stuff? I realize he was locked in a pretty fierce battle for the staff's last spot, but he did nobody any good -- not the team and not himself -- by concealing his health problems. Instead of taking the time to heal properly, Telemaco selfishly kept on taking the ball, knowing that he wasn't right and putting his own interests before his team's. To cite just a single example of the negative impact of Telemaco's actions, imagine if Ryan Madson on Tuesday had been relieved by a healthy pitcher instead of a nicked one; perhaps the Phils would have remained closer to the Sox, with those late runs enabling them to take the lead instead of merely making the score respectable.

Now the Phils are stuck with Paul Abbott, impelling Bill Liming to lament what he sees as "guaranteed garbage innings" when he starts Sunday in Minnesota. I don't know enough about Abbott to make too many judgments, although it is telling that he was released earlier this season ... by the Devil Rays.

UPDATE: Tonight's game has been rained out, with no makeup date yet announced.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Piss-Pour | In case you haven't heard, brewers Miller and Anheuser-Busch are engaged in open hostility, carpet-bombing each other with respective new ad campaigns that serve only to illustrate, once again, that if they spent half as many resources on production as on marketing, they might -- might -- produce beers worth drinking once in a while, rather than the unimaginative, watery, flavorless brews they serve up now. This latest bloodsport between the two heavyweights and longtime bitter rivals involves attacking each other with a directness that is rare in advertising; even those 1990s relics, the Budweiser lizards, which were never as funny as their iconic omnipresence suggested, have reappeared, much to the delight of suckers for cheap gags.

If A-B and Miller have to saturate the public's radio and television airwaves with advertisements for gag-inducing products, and judging by the average American sporting event, they do, I wish those ads could be as clever as Bud Light's legitimately funny "Real Men of Genius" spots. They don't make me want to drink Bud Light, of course -- not even Donald Rumsfeld holding a pair of brass knuckles could impel me to accept so tortuous a fate -- but at least they're witty.

So what's a good beer lover to do? Drown my sorrows, I suppose -- and fortunately, I have a refrigerator now stocked with a six-pack of my current fave. Cheers.

Sox It to Me | The Phillies traded punches with the White Sox last night, but in the end it was the Pale Hose who had more firepower. Emergency starter Ryan Madson didn't make it out of the first, and Chicago withstood a late Phillies rally to emerge from the slugfest -- or, as Exile in Wrigleyville aptly termed it, a "beer-league softball game" -- with a 14-11 win. The Phils now are three games behind the Marlins and just a half-game ahead of Atlanta and a game and a half up on the Mets.

Meanwhile, the Daily News's Bill Conlin has a message for those of us who have been rattling our cages for a managerial change: Save your breath. Conlin observes that fan disenchantment and media complaints have little effect on this Phillies regime; rather, what gets managers sacked is disloyalty to the front office and wanton disrespect in the clubhouse. That still doesn't stop him from taking a poke at Bowa for micromanaging last night's fireworks show:

One thing Bowa should have learned from [Jim] Fregosi was the art of taking one bullet to avoid a hail of them. Sometimes, he said, you've just got to let a starter get pounded, eat some undigestible innings so the bullpen can lift its arms the rest of a series, particularly a bullpen already frazzled by injuries. Forget for one game the knee-jerk double moves, the left-right-left-right charades and shut it down. "There's nothing wrong with winning two out of three," Fregosi would say.

Interestingly, while Bowa hooked Madson early, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen hung with his starter, Mark Buehrle, and was rewarded with seven innings. The Phillies used four relievers, the Sox just two. I realize that Madson, making his first start, wasn't going to pitch very long anyway, but still. It's a damn shame incompetence can't be added to Conlin's list of fireable offense.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Pout Pitch | Our own Mr. Accountability, Larry Bowa, launches another preemptive strike of an excuse, whining to the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury about the supposed inequities of the Phillies' interleague schedule. Why, Larry asks, do the Phillies have to play the Red Sox while the Marlins get to feast on Tampa Bay? Your answer in four words, Larry: Shut up and play. As Mike Carminati notes in a concise and spot-on post, the Phils' troubles can be pegged to their woeful performance against their own division rivals -- including, of course, the Fish.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Draft Peer | Earlier today the Phillies selected Texas high school outfielder Greg Golson with the 21st pick in the first round of the annual amateur draft. Baseball America likes the choice:

Golson's package of five tools is as attractive as any in the draft. His most obvious tool is his top-of-the-line speed. He has the bat speed and hand-eye coordination to hit for power and average. Defensively, both his range and arm are plus tools. He will need to make some offensive adjustments as a pro, as his swing is more choppy than fluid, but scouts believe he'll be able to do so.

With their minor league teams generally well stocked with arms, the Phils were said to be looking to replenish the organization's supply of position players, so Golson's selection is not a surprise. The Phillies have had some recent success in getting their high draft picks to the Show, so maybe if Ed Wade still hasn't found a leadoff hitter by 2008 or so, we'll see Golson's name penciled into the No. 1 slot. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, took Stephen Drew, brother of old pal J.D., whom BA describes as "the best position player available" but also a guy who "doesn't play his best all the time -- only when he wants to." Sounds like a perfect Scott Boras client.

Millwood's Misery | He may be the Phillies' No. 1 starter, but Kevin Millwood lately has looked more like No. 2, if you know what I mean. The Phils staked Millwood to a 4-0 lead after two innings against the Braves yesterday, but a six-run Atlanta fifth sent Philadelphia to a 6-4 defeat at Turner Field. Millwood's 4.2-inning outing earned him an unusually harsh assessment from the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury, who filed today's game story:

All those runs were given up by Kevin Millwood, who not only continues to struggle against his old team but also has failed badly at being the ace the Phillies thought they were getting when they traded Johnny Estrada for him before last season.

Since the all-star break last season, Millwood is 8-10 with a 4.70 earned run average in 27 starts. Scott Boras may really be the best agent in the business if he can score Millwood No. 1 starter's money on the free-agent market this winter.

This was a game Millwood should have won, a game he should have put in his pocket, a game that should have ended the hex the Braves have on him.

Instead, he let a 4-0 lead get away, all in one inning that featured sloppy pitching and sloppy defense.

Meanwhile, the Phils enter interleague play this week looking distressingly like last season's underachieving disappointment. In his thorough review and analysis of the season's first third, Bill Liming observes, "... [T]he Phillies currently stand at 29-25, on a pace for an 87-75 season. That's just a game better than last season, and not terribly likely to get them into the post-season." Not helping matters at all is that injuries are piling up. While Placido Polanco and Billy Wagner will return for tomorrow's opener against the White Sox, Randy Wolf has been shut down in an effort to alleviate tendonitis in his throwing elbow, and David Bell seems to have joined the ranks of the majors' permanently nicked players. It's rather difficult to envision a half-full glass these days.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

D-Day + 60 | Ten years ago, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the newspaper for which I was then working sent me to interviewe a dozen or so local D-Day veterans and write up their recollections. The current geopolitical situation, as well as human nature, I suppose, have led to numerous political comments regarding today's 60th anniversary. Rather than delve into those, I prefer to recall my conversations with these men who parachuted into French villages in the pre-dawn murk and splashed off of landing ships onto a shore littered with dead bodies and being torn apart by enemy fire. To a man they refused to believe that in launching the liberation of Europe they had done anything special. They were simply doing what they were told and trying not to get killed in the process, they told me. They were young and nervous and scared as hell.

To them and all who helped bring peace and freedom to a war-ravaged corner of the world 60 years ago, I say thank you.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Falling Down | Maybe there's something to this notion that the Yankees win because they always have won. Maybe you have to win to know how to win.

Then there's the hometown nine. Emergency starter Josh Hancock gave up a grand slam last night to a player who's closer in age to 50 than 40, and the Phillies fell meekly to the Braves, 8-4, to drop to just two games over .500. With wins by Atlanta and the Mets tonight, the Phils would be in fourth place.

Repeat after me: Fourth place. Fourth. Place. In a division whose name should be "National League Mediocre."

It's now June 4. The April excuses -- it's early; we'll get it together soon; we just need a few base hits to fall -- no longer apply. The Phils spoke as if they could just turn it on and start piling up victories, but with no Yankee-like legacy of winning to fall back, they are stumbling blindly along, division favorites seemingly with no clue of what it means to be a professional, successful team.

Ed Wade has used ownership's recently deepened pockets to buy himself a free pass along with a gaggle of big names, but the additions of Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, and Kevin Millwood, upgrades all, have failed to mask some very significant flaws that he has yet to address: managerial fumbling and absolutely no top-of-the-lineup presence.

The Phillies yesterday played roster roulette by sending Shawn Wooten to the Red Barons in order to recall Hancock. Wooten was said to be understandably upset; presumably he didn't uproot his life and move across the country so that he could take bus rides from Scranton to Pawtucket. From Jim Salisbury's notes column today comes this laughable rationale for demoting Wooten instead of the highly ineffective Jason Michaels: "According to manager Larry Bowa, Michaels (5 hits in 28 at-bats) stayed because of his experience and his success last season."

We're not talking about Barry Bonds here -- success as a role player in the previous year is a piss-poor excuse to keep a guy around when he's below the Mendoza Line. Michaels may be a versatile player, but so, too, is Wooten, who, by the way, owns a World Series ring and has nearly three times as many major league at-bats as Michaels. So much for experience.

A far more experienced observer than I, Bill Conlin, who still has a sharp eye after all these years, had this to say yesterday:

Larry Bowa's No. 3 hole was manned Tuesday night by a slump-ridden bench player, and isn't that precisely whom you want hitting in front of Jim Thome, a guy with a .179 stick? Do you think during those years when he was rewriting the NCAA record book at the University of Miami, Pat Burrell imagined in his wildest imaginings he someday would play in a major league game where he batted two spots behind Hurricanes teammate Jason Michaels? Nah, that 4-1 loss to the Mets in 10 excruciating innings was far from Bowa's finest hour as a manager. And it bottomed out when he pinch-hit Bobby "Automatic Transmission" Abreu, who, as his nickname suggests, is clutchless, for Doug Glanville against fearsome Mets reliever Ricky Bottalico. It wasn't so much that Abreu is a brutal pinch-hitter who rarely delivers in end-game situations, it's that Glanville was a career 4-for-5 against Bottalico with a walk. After Abreu flied out, Bowa was left with a right-on-right, Ricky Bo vs. Michaels mismatch. The manager said he feared the Mets would walk Abreu if he hit him for Michaels. What a vote of confidence for the next hitter, Thome.

I know, I know, Michaels batting third with his sub-Mendoza average was one of those, "We didn't want to disrupt the rest of the lineup" ploys that emerged from the Cerebral Seventies, when managers dropped the Educated Hunch for the Advance Scouting Report. But to dignify that premise is to forget that Jimmy Rollins, David Bell and Marlon Byrd have been hopscotched around a lineup where Abreu shuttles between 3-5, Thome between 3-4-5 and Burrell 4-5. This lineup is chiseled in Jell-O.

More profane but just as indignant was John Yuda, who undoubtedly got blocked by lots of Internet filters with his paint-peeling but not inaccurate post from late Wednesday. It's hard to disagree. I'm trying not to be too pessimistic, but the Phils look more Frightenin' than Fightin' these days, and I've seen nothing to indicate they have the ability to bust open the division. And if it's tight at the end, my fear is that the team with a legacy (Braves) or the team that managers to be more, not less, than the sum of its parts (Marlins) will have the edge.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Busting Bobby | Mike Carminati ranted recently about what he sees as Philadelphia's shameful underappreciation of Bobby Abreu. He used a lot of very solid statistical analysis to support a contention of "greatness," and suggested that perhaps there is an ethnic bias preventing us from wrapping our arms around Abreu.

Acknowledging that the City of Brotherly Love has many, many reasons to hang its head when it comes to race relations, past and present, I'm nevertheless more inclined to accept Mike's other explanation:

I think it may be something more deeply rooted in the Philly sports fan's psyche. It's the reason that the fans booed Mike Schmidt on his way to hitting 548 home runs and to being the greatest third baseman who ever played the game. I remember in the mid-Seventies, when Schmidt was becoming the best overall player in the NL, Greg Luzinski was far more popular. Schmidt was said to be padding his numbers. He wasn't clutch. He struck out too much. He was too cold and dispassionate. Never mind that Schmidt was one stolen base away from being a 30-30 man, a concept that did not even exist yet, and that Schmidt's offensive and defensive growth was astronomical. Schmidt was not "one of us". Luzinski misplayed balls in left field. The Phils were always threatening to move him to first and had to pull him in the seventh in favor of first Jerry Martin and then Lonnie "Skates" Smith whenever they had a lead -- sort of a closer in left field. Luzinski was a Philly guy.

The same seems to be true of how the fans see Abreu and Jim Thome. Thome is limited in what he can do on the basepaths and defensively at first, but he sure can clout 'em out, And he was quickly accepted by the Philly brethren. The things Abreu does in each facet of the game add up to his greatness. They are more difficult to see. Everyone can grasp a Thome monster home run.

Like it or not, Philadelphia is a town that reveres overachievers, and I don’t think it has much to do with race. A hobbled Allen Iverson, recklessly playing with a warrior's heart and a battered body, was wholeheartedly embraced in leading the 76ers to an improbable berth in the NBA finals a few years ago. Donavan McNabb, whose jersey can be seen everywhere around here from September to January, played much of a game with a broken ankle, displaying the kind of toughness that has rendered him largely immune from substantial criticism despite losing three straight conference championship games.

More to the point, Abreu seems way too many times to be going through the motions. This has nothing to do with stats and everything to do with how he plays the game, and it's something that can be appreciated only if you see enough Phils games in person. Abreu is an extraordinarily gifted player -- and one who appears to be taking plays off from time to time. Mike Carminati has been a Phillies fan long enough to know that this is the cardinal sin around here. Losing, we're used to; we can accept it. Dogging it? Expect the boos to rain down like a summer thunderstorm, hard and with ultimate fury, whether the offender is a 30-30 guy or the team's 25th man.

For the record, Mike also lobbed a couple of hand grenades at Howard Eskin, an activity that can't be supported enough.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

June Swoon? | While reader Dan preaches caution and points to the typical ups and downs of the long baseball season, the Phillies again forgot how to hit tonight. Starter Tom Glavine, who's really bringing it this season, and a trio of Met relievers gave up just five hits in 10 innings, and the Mets used a pair of dingers from Todd Zeile -- older than dirt and the very definition of a journeyman infielder -- to secure a 5-3 victory and complete a three-game sweep. Zeile's eighth-inning shot off Ryan Madson tied the game at 3, and his 10th-inning tater to right, this one off the increasingly maligned Roberto Hernandez, put it away. The Phillies made things interesting by loading the bases for Jim Thome in the bottom of the 10th, but the big guy grounded out to end the threat.

Now the Fightin's face the prospect of trying to right the ship at Turner Field, and as Larry Bowa and others continue to point out, until someone knocks them off, the Braves are still the division champs. I wish I could be as optimistic as Dan, but getting Billy Wagner back won't mean much if the Phillies continue to play as if they're swinging Wiffle bats instead of Louisville Sluggers. Seven runs in three games against the Mets? Just not good enough.

I'm Told He Also Said, "Brash Hunky" | Did anyone see tonight's edition of Daily News Live on Comcast SportsNet? At one point the producers played a Smarty Jones parody by WMMR's Joe Conklin set to the tune of "Fight for Your Right," and I could have sworn that host and uber-white guy Michael Barkann made a reference to the "Bestial Boys." Can anyone confirm this? Such is what happens when amateurs attempt to mix sports and pop culture. Let us pros handle that kind of heavy lifting, Mike.

Silly Philly | What a day to be a Philadelphian. The City of Brotherly Love reinforces its reputation as a sleepy, parochial, small-thinking burg by giving skateboarders the middle finger yet again, New York's streets are safer than ours, and Larry Brown is going back to the NBA finals -- against the hated Lakers. But, hey, we still have the criminally underexposed Smarty Jones, right? 'Cause, y'know, I just can't get enough of that four-legged fella! Maybe the Daily News can analyze his stool samples next... .

A Fine Mets | What's happened to the team that rampaged through the West and returned to Philadelphia looking like confident, swaggering winners? Suddenly we're stuck with the Phillies who opened the season -- the ones that couldn't hit with runners in scoring position, the ones that rolled over and died against even mediocre competition, the ones that told us it was temporary and wouldn't last.

I watched just an inning of last night's game, and it was a doozy of an inning at that. First up was the bottom of the ninth and the Phillies' laughable, and futile, attempt to score a runner from second with one out and Ricky Bottalico -- no, really -- on the mound for the Mets. Then the top of the 10th and Tim Worrell's Mesa-like implosion.

As for Monday's waterlogged loss, I was at the Park for the first rain delay, the first three innings, and much of the second rain delay. The less said, the better. The only good part of the day was that the weather suppressed the crowds which usually throng Ashburn Alley and allowed my brother-in-law and me to stand in line for less than 90 seconds before buying a Schmitter, a mouthwatering combination of steak, cheese, salami, and Russian dressing that rivals Tony Luke's roast pork effort as the stadium's best sandwich. Oh, yeah, the beer was good, too.

Marcus Hayes summed it up nicely in his write-up of Monday's game:

There's lots of ugly coming out of the Phillies since their off day.

For instance, after yesterday's 5-3 loss to the Mets they're 3-4 since resting May 24, having fallen two games behind the world champion Florida Marlins in the National League East. They've got four key players hurt and zero palatable options in the leadoff slot.

Yesterday, sitting on a fat sellout gate -- "I couldn't believe we even started the game," Mets catcher Jason Phillips said -- they had to sit through 3 hours and 40 minutes of rain delays to play the 3-hour, 2-minute game.

But the most telling number, the one that has bitten them worst the past two seasons, deals with hitting with runners in scoring positions. They aren't.

After surging from second-to-last in the league to the middle of the pack 8 days ago, they are since 6-for-57 after yesterday's 1-for-7 performance. That's dropped them right back down to just-better-than-Expos level: .219.

Of their three wins, one came with three unearned runs and another's difference-maker was a hit-by-pitch. Some attack, huh?

We're now into the season's second third, and the Phillies are all of four games over .500. On paper the division's best team, they are trailing the Marlins by two, with the Braves and Mets -- again, no, really -- within striking distance. While the middle of the lineup has hit the ball, the top of the lineup has been a seasonlong disaster, and an increasingly panic-stricken Larry Bowa has tried using everyone except Harry Kalas and Tom McCarthy in the first two slots. Granted, injuries have been numerous, but in only one case have they proven truly significant. Placido Polanco's replacement, Chase Utley, has performed better than his injured predecessor, and Jim Thome, Randy Wolf, and Vicente Padilla have missed relatively minimal amounts of time. Billy Wagner's loss has been felt the most, as Worrell has been a most unreliable substitute closer.

There is a distressing similarity to last season, when the Phillies were less than the sum of their parts, and the Marlins more. Yes, it's only June, but eight weeks ago it was only April, and as they seek their nearest division competitor, the Phils continue to face the wrong direction.