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Treading water

Bowa's Phillies hit nasty slump as injuries mount

Posted: Friday June 4, 2004 12:30PM; Updated: Friday June 4, 2004 12:30PM
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Jim Thome
Jim Thome leads the Phillies with 13 home runs.
Al Tielemans/SI

Everybody in baseball has problems. Everybody has injuries to deal with. Everybody has clubhouse subplots.

If a team doesn't have at least a couple of pitchers on the disabled list, if the bench doesn't have a few lame sluggers, if there aren't murmurings about this or whispers about that, then, heck, it's just not a major league team.

Happy, healthy, well-adjusted teams?

Yeah. I've heard of 'em.

The truth is, there are a lot of teams in the same pitching and yawing boat as the Phillies. Their closer, Billy Wagner, has been on the shelf for more than three weeks with a strained groin and won't be back until at least next weekend. One of their starters, Vicente Padilla, just went on the DL a few days ago with biceps tendinitis. Another starter, Randy Wolf, pitched 7 2/3 innings of two-hit ball Wednesday night in New York with a sore arm that may yet bench him. Reliever Roberto Hernandez has a strained calf muscle that put him on the DL for 16 days, though he's back on the field now. Second baseman Placido Polanco is on the DL with a sore quadriceps. He's been out for 27 days.

The Phillies, like a lot of teams, are scrambling. Big time.

"Just try to keep your head above water until the boys get back," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "It's as simple as that."

As familiar as all this might sound to a lot of clubs, the Phillies are different for a couple of reasons. One, they have Bowa, the blunt-nosed former Philadelphia shortstop. He's a constant target of whispers around baseball. Bowa, who has kind of a Captain Ahab-Moby Dick relationship with his players, has been on the managerial hot seat for so long his wallet has turned to toast. The Phillies, to many folks' thinking, are a talented team that could win the National League East despite the presence of the ever-pressing Bowa.

The Phils also are different than your run-of-the-mill, beat-up, would-be contenders because they are, still, contenders. Despite all the injuries, and maybe despite Bowa, the Phillies are within a harpoon's throw of first place in the East, two games behind the Marlins.

The Phillies went into Thursday's game against the Braves with the best pitching staff in the majors (3.65 ERA), though after an 8-4 loss, that'll change. They rank 10th in the league in hitting (.254 average). But they are hanging in there. At least for now. The question -- always with the questions -- is whether the Phillies can remain in the hunt until their pitchers recover and their bats come around. Already they are showing signs that their problems may be catching up with them.

The Phillies were just swept by the Mets. Before Thursday's loss in Atlanta, they were 3-6 in their past nine games, batting only .205 and scoring only 25 runs in that span.

The Phils have been especially awful in the clutch, hitting .214 with runners in scoring position. Only the Expos are worse. The Phillies are hitting .188 with runners in scoring position with two outs. Only the Giants are worse than that.

Jim Thome, their slugging first baseman, is slugging all right, with 12 homers and 26 RBIs in 43 games. He's hitting .304 despite a bad thumb and a sore finger that, ostensibly, make it hard to grip a bat. But Thome, inexplicably, has been terrible when it counts -- .130 with runners in scoring position. Catcher Mike Lieberthal is hitting .096 with runners in scoring position.

If it weren't for a couple of players -- including left fielder Pat Burrell, who hit .209 overall last season but is hitting .353 this season with runners in scoring position -- the Phillies might as well just abandon runners once they hit second base.

It's not pretty in Philadelphia these days. It hasn't been for a few weeks.

But everyone has problems.

"I worry about everyone," said Bowa when someone asked him about Hernandez, who allowed a game-winning homer to the Mets' Todd Zeile on Wednesday. "I don't worry about one person."

Maybe some day the Phillies will get healthy, they'll begin to hit in the clutch, they'll take a big lead in the East and Bowa and the players will sit around in the clubhouse, quietly reading Melville and delving more deeply into their own relationships.

Then we can all start to worry.

Well, on to the E-Bag, which this week is filled with bits on All-Star voting, the NL Central, more shots on your humble e-mail sorter and an absolutely uncalled for swipe at Eric Gagne.

Thanks for recognizing the Wilsons (Jack and Craig) in your early All-Star picks. I am a Pittsburgh native and huge Pittsburgh fan. They have been quite a difficult team to watch during the past 12 years, and have had few players that have shown All-Star potential. However, this year, Jack and Craig are off to terrific starts. I was shocked to see that neither of them had even made the list in the early All-Star results. I think it's a shame they likely will not make the squad because they play for a small-market team that doesn't get a lot of attention.
-- Brad, Pittsburgh

Comments, questions or obviously unfounded criticism? To e-mail Donovan, use the form below.
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Perfect example, Brad, of guys who deserve recognition with an All-Star nod (if they keep this up). But even if the fans don't recognize them, the players will in their voting for the All-Star reserves.

The NL Central as the best division in baseball? What a bunch of pansies. Try the AL Central for a better division. I'll give you even money the White Sox finish with a better record than the Cubs. The Cubs are always good for a perennial laugh ... the eternal optimism their fans display parallels the hope only a mother could display for a mass murderer!
-- Jim Rodenborn, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Geez, Jim. Don't get outta Fort Dodge. The Cubs fans will kill you.

Best division? An underperforming Astros team that strands runners and can't close out games. A Cubs team without its top hitter and two aces. A Cincy team with horrendous pitching. The Brewers and Pirates are only close because the division is one of mediocrity, not greatness.
-- Steve, Austin, Texas

Well, Steve, I don't think the NL Central is great. But I don't think that the teams in the Central are quite as poor as many believe. The out-of-division records prove it. I'm not saying the bottom three in the division are ready for prime time. But they have some talent. And the top three, when healthy, are as good or better than most.

Where do you think the Phillies would be without Larry Bowa?
-- John Hofer, Bethlehem, Pa.

Probably partying somewhere.

If the name of the game is getting on base, I would say 50 hits in one month might qualify as MVP status -- Ichiro Suzuki is back after a slow start. I see that many experts (i.e. Donovan) write off players and teams before the fat lady sings because of slow starts and down-spiraling performance. How about those Giants, three games out of first, and the Braves (2 1/2 games out)? The next team to move up will be the Mariners. Watch out Anaheim!
-- Rob Taylor, Yakima, Wash.

Well, Rob, you're right. Things can change quickly this early in the season. Which, if you're prognosticating, is why you have to boil things down to the basics. Where's the talent? Who is most likely to get the most out of that talent? I don't think the Giants are the most talented team in a weak NL West. The same goes for the Braves in the NL East and the Mariners in the AL West. I'll tell you what: If the Mariners win the West, I'll eat my foot.

Good call a couple weeks ago when you counted the Giants out. How does your foot taste?
-- Markus, Chicago

Had it before. A little like chicken.

Eric Gagne has obviously done something amazing with 76 straight saves, but I am getting sick of hearing about him. I don't think he deserved the Cy Young last year. He is just someone who isn't good enough to be a starter. Imagine if Randy Johnson suddenly decided to be a reliever. He would probably never miss a save either. And Gagne is definitely no Randy Johnson.
-- Jon, Milwaukee

Jon, a little credit to the closer, please. A closer rarely has any margin for error. He can't make one single mistake, can't leave one pitch over the plate. He usually comes into the most pressure-filled of circumstances. It's a rare closer who can be an effective starter (though Derek Lowe comes to mind). But it's not all that easy the other way around, either. Remember, as a closer, you don't get into a groove. You have to be in one when you step on the mound. You're probably right about Johnson, though. He'd be tough any time.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.