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Phillies lack firepower without Howard, Utley

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

SAN DIEGO – Going on eight years into this little sumpin'-sumpin' in Philly, ol' Cholly ambled into the visitor's dugout, where the backrests are wired for temperature control against the sneaky brisk evenings here.

"Well," he said, "I ain't sittin' there."

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The Phillies are struggling without Ryan Howard, injured making the final out in last year's NLDS, in the lineup. …

See, manager Charlie Manuel's been around long enough to know that if he's gonna be on a hot seat, it ain't gonna be in San Diego in April, and it damn well ain't gonna be self-inflicted.

His Philadelphia Phillies were 5-7 Thursday afternoon, going on 6-7, for the moment in last place in the suddenly deeper and more capable National League East. And there's work ahead.

Last anyone saw of Charlie's cleanup hitter, he was writhing on the first-base line and trying not to get trampled by the St. Louis Cardinals' victory stampede. Ryan Howard tore his Achilles' tendon in the final seconds of the Phillies' 2011 season and won't see a lineup card until sometime around the All-Star game.

Charlie's old-before-his-time No. 3 hitter, Chase Utley, is rehabilitating a bum knee and hasn't taken so much as an at-bat yet, either. He could be out another month or longer and even then the organization might do well to abandon thoughts that Utley will return with the production of his prime.

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That leaves the Phillies, winners of 102 games in '11, to live somewhere between temporary survival and long-term organizational shift, at least on the offensive side. In 14 games they've scored 41 runs, fewer than any team in baseball with whom they don't share a state. The Pittsburgh Pirates have scored 27 runs in 13 games, and we told you the deforestation of Pennsylvania was a bad idea, as apparently now there aren't enough bats to go around.

Hunter Pence is now the regular No. 4 hitter, behind Jimmy Rollins, who pulled the same duty waiting for Utley a year ago, did what he could and slugged .346. The five spot – behind Pence – has held five different players, Shane Victorino being the latest. Even the best end-to-end pitching in the majors hasn't been able to cover for the offense, which, going into Friday, had scored four earned runs in its last 34 innings. Granted, nine of those innings came against San Francisco Giants' ace Matt Cain. Still, there have been plenty of other opposing pitchers just as effective though not nearly so decorated.

To that, Charlie shrugged and waved his floppy hands. Once a believer that the most talent wins, he said Thursday that the past two World Series champions – the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals – while quite talented individually, also possessed wonderful spirits that helped drive them into late October. In Charlie's first six seasons in Philadelphia, the Phillies had the best or second-best offense in the league five times. They won a World Series. They went to the sixth game of another.

And, well, this team might have to win differently than those, more like last year's team which won all those games with a mediocre attack and 105 different batting orders.

"Desire and heart," he said, "goes a long way in this game. I definitely have changed my philosophy about that. I used to say, 'Give me the talent and I'll work with that.' "

Now he'd also like to know, he said, "How much life and energy you have."

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Certainly that would be a priority when your ballclub isn't scoring even three full runs a game, when covering 360 feet takes so much more of an effort. But, and for the moment, Charlie is taking it as it comes. He's showing some reasonable life and energy in searching for the right men in the right spots on his lineup card, and seems open to suggestions.

Asked, for example, about someone other than Rollins in the three-hole, Charlie grinned and said, "If I can think of somebody to put there I might think about it." You don't get any more honest – or circuitous – than that.

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Cliff Lee pitched 10 scoreless innings the San Francisco Giants and still lost. (AP)

In the Phillies' clubhouse, you get the sense they're eager for Howard and Utley to get healthy and get hitting, and yet understand that staring at the door won't do a thing to back Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. The night before, Lee had pitched 10 scoreless innings and the Phillies lost. Maybe it's temporary, but the leadoff spot had done little until Juan Pierre got hot, and John Mayberry Jr. (covering for Howard at first base) and Placido Polanco are hitting in the .180s, and rookie Freddy Galvis (for Utley at second) has started slow.

That leaves a lot to Rollins, Pence and Victorino, and perhaps too much to fix for even Howard and Utley.

If the offense is going to do anything, Rollins said, it'll lay with every man performing every small duty, then pushing it on to the next guy.

"You're not kicking a can down the road," he said. "You run your race.

"We'll get there. It's not like you take two guys out of the lineup and no one can hit."

Yes, they'll get there or they won't. They'll remake themselves and feather in the core of their lineup when it's time, whenever that comes, or they'll cling to a pitching staff that just might be good enough to drag everyone along.

"We'll all watch together," Rollins said with a smile. "They could come back as superstars, as Phoenixes. But, you never know."

His point being, it'd be a very good idea for the Phillies to start hitting, you know, soon.

"We're fine," Charlie drawled. "We've been there a lot. We know what we have to do."

He'll watch, too. And work through those lineup cards. And figure the best is coming. Now if he could find somewhere to sit …

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