Senior Baseball Columnist

Weekend Buzz: With Lee down and rest of NL East up, Phils face battle


Despite the early struggles, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is still confident in his team. (US Presswire)  
Despite the early struggles, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is still confident in his team. (US Presswire)  

The Weekend Buzz while you were taking a moment of silence Friday to observe what would have been Tiger Stadium's 100th birthday while the "We Want Tito!" chants were ringing out on Fenway Park's 100th. ...

1. Phillies on the Cliff: Cliff Lee threw a beautiful game in San Francisco on Wednesday, working 10 shutout innings in an 11-inning, 1-0 loss. No Phillies pitcher had worked that many shutout innings in a game since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton in 1981.

Then Lee plopped onto the disabled list Saturday with an oblique strain.

The Liberty Bell ain't the only beloved Philadelphia treasure that's cracked right now.

Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley ... following five consecutive NL East titles and two World Series appearances, the gap between the now-last-place Phillies and their division rivals already had closed given the Nationals' improvement, the Braves' talent and the Marlins' spending spree.

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Now, with an older roster and three hugely important players out, the Phillies in 2012 are in for their toughest fight yet. Is the margin between Charlie Manuel's club and the rest of the division razor thin? Or has it vanished completely?

The ol' skipper says his Phillies are fine, and will be fine. He tells a story about visiting with a Tigers coach in Florida the spring after Detroit acquired Miguel Cabrera and the coach asking him, "How would you like to have this team? We're going to hit."

Then the Tigers didn't, finishing last in the AL Central at 74-88 in 2008.

Point is, paper names can become paper Tigers. While everyone's excited about the Marlins, the Phillies still own the crown.

"Desire and heart goes a long way in this game," Manuel says. "I've definitely changed my attitude about that. I used to say, 'Give me talent and I'll work with that.' I think sometimes attitude counts more than talent.

"Look at the way the Cardinals caught fire last year. And the Giants two years ago."

Manuel's timing in changing his thinking is convenient, if nothing else. This week, doctors are scheduled to re-examine Howard again and to see if the bandage is ready to come off of his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon. Manuel says doctors think the bandage "might" be ready to come off and, if so, then Howard "can start picking up his workouts now."

Utley? The Phillies haven't seen him since this spring. They hear his bad knee is doing well. Who can tell?

The Nationals have won 10 of 12, and their 2.34 ERA is the majors' best. Their starters have combined for 16 consecutive scoreless innings and lead the majors with a 1.82 ERA. The Braves have won 10 of 12.

The Phillies' 2.41 ERA ranks second in the majors. But now Lee is gone, probably for a month, which means even more heavy lifting for an offense that ranked 15th in the NL in runs entering Sunday (only the Pirates had scored fewer).

Manuel says it's as easy as 1-2-3 to get things going: Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins, top three in the order, "because that is our speed." Polanco has noticed Manuel calling for more hit-and-runs and bunts so far attempting to ignite a rally.

Maybe the best assessment of where the Phillies are, though, is by visiting Pierre's locker.

"I don't see no pressure," he says. "I'm not even supposed to be here. I wasn't even supposed to be batting leadoff.

"This spring, they didn't even guarantee me being in the lineup this much."

2. Perfect Philip Humber: The big right-hander's day in Safeco Field, during which he threw the 21st perfect game in baseball history, was the latest reminder of what a beautiful game this is. The unexpected not only is waiting around every corner, it is a regular visitor. Humber had never even thrown a complete game in 29 previous career major-league starts, and had thrown only four complete games in 120 minor-league starts.

3. Perfect Philip and the Curse of the Mets: The Mets and the Padres remain the only two clubs in the majors without a no-hitter in their history. But Humber became the seventh pitcher to throw one after leaving the Mets, and the second after David Cone to toss a perfect game. Others who have thrown a no-no after leaving the Mets: Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Mike Scott, Dwight Gooden and Hideo Nomo.

4. The flaw in Matt Kemp's thinking: He said he wanted to become the first player ever to go 50-50 -- at least 50 homers and 50 steals. Well, if he keeps depositing pitches over the fence, he's going to have an awfully tough time racking up even 20 thefts. Kemp leads the majors with nine homers, 22 RBIs and a .450 batting average. He's currently averaging one homer every 7.2 plate appearances, and has crushed seven in his past nine games.

5. Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox: Oh, it's not as bad as it looks. There are worse outfits for Valentine to be associated with right now. Like the Secret Service.

6. Theo Epstein and Cubs magic: In dealing Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox -- who are so desperate they'll take anything -- Epstein now has made Byrd and Carlos Zambrano vanish since moving to the Cubs. Forget the Hall of Fame if the Cubs win a World Series -- if Epstein can make Alfonso Soriano disappear, he'll go down with Harry Houdini as one of the greatest magicians ever.

7. Davey Johnson, blacksmith: The first-place Nationals have won eight of 10 games with the game's best pitching. Five of those eight were one-run victories and two came in extra innings. "When the fire is hot, it makes the metal harder," Johnson, the veteran manager, told reporters Sunday. Or, when Stephen Strasburg is pitching, it makes the Nats harder: They've won all four of his starts, and his ERA is a dazzling 1.08.

8. Hey Red Sox, this is how you do it: As Red Sox owner John Henry pointedly noted following Saturday's 15-9 debacle to the Yankees, Boston's current slump isn't just 4-10 in 2012, it's 11-39 dating back to last Sept. 1. Boston's September swoon cousins? The Atlanta Braves, 9-18 last September in a gag that was the NL mirror of Boston's, have won 10 of their past 12 after starting 0-4.

9. Dick Williams would have been proud: The Athletics honored their 1972 World Series winners Saturday on the 40th anniversary of the feat, with Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Bert Campaneris, Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi and, very cool, Catfish Hunter's widow among the attendees. Charles O. Finley's mule was absent.

10. The Price of Twitter: Indians closer Chris Perez was fined $750 for his "reckless" tweet following a Cleveland-Kansas City bench-clearing incident in which he warned Royals pitchers "you hit us, we hit you. Period." Man, $750 ... that's $5.36 per character!


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