Is It Time to Panic Yet, Phillies Fans?

There's one crucial thing missing from this Phils team. Here's hoping it's not their undoing

Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel had better be sending Peter Laviolette daily gift baskets and other tokens to thank the Flyers’ coach for leading his team to the Stanley Cup finals and deflecting the city’s attention away from its largely inept baseball team. While he’s at it, Manuel should also petition the Big Umpire for a couple Flyers victories this week, the better to prolong the Cup series until his team can figure out how to play winning ball again. Perhaps he can convince NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to make the Philly-Chicago matchup a best of 13. Maybe by the time that one would end, Manuel’s bunch would be out of its horrific funk.

The teams’ recent divergent paths have demonstrated the completely different attitudes and styles with which they play. The Flyers have reached this point with a furious, relentless approach that maximizes their talent and makes role players valuable contributors. Each shift is played with a purpose. Each moment is imbued with a sense of urgency. They may be down 2-0 to a strong Blackhawks team, but the Flyers — save a few moments of shaky play by goalie Michael Leighton and some standing around on defense — have acquitted themselves quite well to this date. They head home believing they need just a couple breaks, not to mention a full-throated home crowd, to tie the series. It may well be that the local heroes can’t overcome the early deficit, especially since 31 of 33 teams to take a 2-0 Cup final lead on home ice have won the series. But there can be no doubting this team’s earnest commitment and all-out effort. [SIGNUP]

It’s hard to say the same thing about the Phillies. We hear constantly how it’s important not to make too much of a week or two during a 162-game season, since the six-month march to October is bound to include some twists and turns. That is absolutely true. One only need check out the Braves’ progress since May 9, when they slunk out of Philadelphia six games behind the first-place Phils and hardly looking like the contender many expected them to be. Monday’s 9-3 win put the Braves in first place and was their 16th triumph in 20 games. A lot can happen in three weeks.

But two months are a pretty good indicator of how a team is going to play, and the Phillies seem to lack the spark that propelled them to so much success the past two years and will be absolutely necessary to earn them post-season success in 2010. It is tempting to focus on the horrid hitting slump that has plagued the team of late, since the numbers are so breathtakingly awful. During the past nine games, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth have combined for two RBI. The team has scored a total of 10 runs. Yesterday’s three-run total qualified as an “outburst.”

The hitting is just part of the overall equation and not the main reason for concern. This team seems a little too cool for its own good. The statistic that should startle Phillies fans is the 12 errors the team has made during hits nine-game descent. Some of the gaffes have been Bad News Bears-caliber, such as Ben Francisco’s blunder in left Sunday or Ross Gload’s drop the next day. Dreadful stuff and hardly related to a slump or a mixup, as Terry Francona used to say. That’s bad baseball.

The Phillies can’t manufacture runs, especially with Jimmy Rollins on the shelf. They lack fiery players who can help will a team out of an abyss. Howard, Utley and Werth are all quiet guys who can’t be expected to shout “Follow me!” and lead their teammates onto the field of battle with a renewed spirit.

And speaking of Francisco and Gload, they are part of a bench brigade that is underwhelming, at best. Only Juan Castro, who has filled in admirably during Rollins’ two DL stints, and Wilson Valdez have distinguished themselves. And before we nominate them for All-Star roster spots, remember that each is hitting a mediocre .250. The rest of the reserves are floundering. Gload and Francisco are hitting a combined .216 with 9 RBI. Greg Dobbs (.125) is far removed from his great 2008 performance, and Brian Schneider (.174) makes dependable Carlos Ruiz look like Joe Mauer. Then again, that’s what you get when you shop at Wal-Mart for big-league talent.

Blaming the bench for this nasty stretch is hardly appropriate. The backup troubles are just another symptom of the Phillies’ overall condition. What the team needs now is a renewed sense of determination and a sense that the NL pennant is not its destiny, rather its reward for a season of hard work and spirit. The Phillies have had their share of injuries, and they have contributed to the team’s funk, but at some point the team needs to reflect on its approach to the game and realize that even in a rotten National League, there is a need for an urgent approach to its business.

Should they need a little reminder of how much that helps, the Phillies can just look across the street. The Flyers have traveled as far as a team can go with that approach and continue to display it every night they hit the ice.

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• Don’t be so sure the Sixers are going to pick Evan Turner at number two. He’s not a great fit, and there are other, more appropriate options. Stay tuned.

• The Eagles have about 10 days of work left before their pre-camp break. The newcomers and new leaders are getting comfortable, but we won’t know what the recent purge has wrought until the heat cranks up at Lehigh.

• Enough with this “underdog” talk about the Celtics. Any team with three Hall of Famers can never be an underdog. As for the Finals, take L.A. in six.