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For the Phils, it's more than one bad night -- but will this be one bad year?

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
Kyle Kendrick's horrid outing Wednesday night typifies Philly's recent bullpen performances. (Getty Images)


PHILADELPHIA -- If Charlie Manuel is right, and the Phillies really have "given away" seven or eight games that they should have won, then they could easily be something like 22-10, which would be the best record in baseball.

Instead of 14-18, in last place by themselves and tied in the disappointment of the year standings with the Angels.

If Jimmy Rollins is right, and "there's plenty enough talent" in this Phillies clubhouse, then there's no reason to doubt that the Phillies will find their way back to the top of the National League East.

But are they right? Can this team survive until Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return, especially when there's still no real timetable for either of them to come back?

Or is this the year that the Phillies as we've known them fade away, holding tight to their one World Series title, their five division crowns and a couple of years of playoff disappointment?

Is this the year we spend July wondering who the Phillies will trade away (would they even think of dealing free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels?), the year we start wondering who will manage this team after Manuel is gone?

Watch this team right now, and every one of those questions come to mind.

The Phillies were bad enough in Wednesday's 10-6 loss to the Mets that they forced their manager into reluctantly calling his first meeting of the year. But the most damning words were the ones I heard from someone else in the Phillies clubhouse:

"This is what it's been like," he said.

This is what it's like: A lineup that without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard suddenly looks ordinary ("Totally ordinary," said one scout who has been watching). A bullpen that has five blown saves and a 9.82 ERA in the last 10 games. A team that was already three games under .500 for the first time in five years, and is now four games under.

And a feeling that has changed so drastically that on this team so renowned for finding ways to win, "Now we're finding ways to lose," Rollins said.

He readily admits he has been part of the problem, with a .230 batting average, a .549 OPS and just five RBI. He categorically rejects the idea that the absence of Howard and Utley is the biggest issue here.

"That's not an excuse," Rollins said. "That's really not an excuse."

Fine, but it's hard to see how that's not the solution.

In fact, the solution to the Phillies' woes -- if there is going to be one -- is fairly obvious:

They ride their outstanding starting pitching, even better now that Cliff Lee returned from the disabled list Wednesday, and remain within catching distance in the National League East race. As poorly as they've played, the Phillies trail the division-leading Nationals and Braves by five games, hardly insurmountable with 130 games remaining.

Then Howard or Utley comes back as the difference-maker(s) the Phillies lineup is so badly lacking.

Sounds simple, except for one small (or potentially very big) issue: The Phillies still have no real timetable for either one to make it back.

Utley (with chronic knee problems) is around the team, takes batting practice regularly and takes ground balls sometimes, but there's no suggestion he's close to playing in any kind of game. Howard (coming back from an Achilles injury) is in Florida, and started swinging a bat this week. There's no suggestion he's close to playing in a game, either.

Without either of them, or if they come back but don't look like themselves, it's hard to see how the Phillies win, even with all their starting pitching. With one or both of them returning to anything like what they've been, it's hard to declare this dynasty to be over.

In the meantime, the Phillies will try to fix what they can, and try to make this makeshift $172 million club look more presentable.

Maybe part of it is about attitude, something Manuel and Lee both suggested.

"I think there needs to be more urgency than there's been," Lee said Wednesday night.

Certainly part of it is about fixing -- or at least stabilizing -- the middle of the bullpen. As bad as the lineup looks, the Phillies have held a lead at one point in each of the last 10 games, but still managed to lose six of them.

Lee's return should help, even if it didn't result in a win Wednesday. He was held to 84 pitches in his first start back; with 20 more, he might make it through eight innings instead of six, and hand the ball directly to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Lee, Hamels and Roy Halladay will need to do just that as often as possible. The wins they get will likely be grind-them-out wins, but with starting pitching like this, that's reasonable to expect.

The Phillies will play better, for sure.

"What we have to do is get past go," Rollins said. "We've gotten to the starting block, but we keep false-starting."

If this is merely a false start, that's fine, because then the Phillies get a do-over. If the starting pitching can carry them for a while and Howard and Utley can come back, they could have just that.

This isn't necessarily the year it all ends for the Phillies. But this is the month when we start asking those questions.
 
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