With last season’s NL MVP on the disabled list and his MVP predecessor struggling to even make contact with the ball, it would make sense if the Philadelphia Phillies were struggling to score runs.
The Phillies, thriving even with Jimmy Rollins out of the lineup and Ryan Howard struggling in it, will look for their seventh win in eight games and a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday at PNC Park.
Rollins, the NL’s reigning MVP, was off to a solid start when he sprained his left ankle on April 8, and he was placed on the DL April 20. Howard, who won the award in 2006, leads the majors with 37 strikeouts and is hitting .178, although he did homer on Saturday.
Philadelphia (14-11), though, hasn’t skipped a beat offensively thanks to Utley and Burrell. Utley is making a strong early case for a third straight Phillies league MVP, leading the majors with 10 homers while batting .368.
“He loves to hit,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “He takes his hitting very serious. He doesn’t give away at-bats, and he just loves baseball. That definitely helps make him the hitter he is.”
Burrell, meanwhile, hit just .256 last season but is off to a .345 start in 2008, with eight homers and 25 RBIs - tied for the major-league lead - for a Philadelphia offense that ranks third in the NL in runs.
Rollins isn’t eligible to come off the DL until May 5, but Philadelphia would like to see Howard get himself turned around before then. It may have gotten a positive sign on Saturday, when the first baseman hit a two-run homer in the first inning of the Phillies’ 8-4 win.
“I felt pretty good today at the plate with seeing pitches and running the count,” said Howard, who also struck out twice. “All-in-all, it was positive. I’ll definitely take the home run.”
The homer was Howard’s first in 20 career games against the Pirates, during which he’s hit .118 with 34 strikeouts in 68 at-bats.
Philadelphia will send Brett Myers (2-1, 4.78 ERA) to the mound as it looks for its fourth win in a row overall. Myers is coming off one of his worst starts of the season, as he allowed six runs and 11 hits in seven innings against Colorado on Tuesday, but escaped without a decision as the Phillies rallied for an 8-6 win.
Despite a 2-3 career record against the Pirates, Myers has pitched well (2.38 ERA) in five starts against them.
Pittsburgh (9-15) has lost nine of 11, and its major-league worst 5.62 staff ERA is a big reason why.
The Pirates have also struggled defensively, committing a major-league high 28 errors through 24 games.
Paul Maholm (1-2, 4.22) will look to build on his first win of the season. The left-hander allowed one run in six innings while striking out six in a 3-2 win over Florida on Tuesday. He’s also looking forward to facing the Phillies.
“I want to challenge them,” Maholm told the Pirates’ official Web site. “Chase Utley is crushing the ball and Ryan Howard’s a MVP-type player and Pat Burrell’s going to do his stuff.
“It’s going to be fun - that’s what you go out there for. You go up against the best and see where you are at.”
Maholm is 2-1 with a 6.50 ERA in three career starts versus the Phillies.