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.


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