It has been an April full of questions and criticism for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Without their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters in Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Phils have had a tough go over the first 24 games of the 2012 baseball season. There have already been times when the offense looked so abysmal that writers and fans were ready to throw away any championship aspirations.
Yet, after Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies find themselves just 2.5 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals in the NL East.
Through all of Philadelphia’s so-called problems and deficiencies, the team has won five of its last seven games and now sits at 12-12 on May 1. The good vibes should be increased by the fact that the Phils have scored at least five runs in four of those wins.
As one would expect, the Phillies’ recent run has improved their offensive numbers. In just nine days the Phils have doubled their homerun total (seven to 14) and have nearly doubled their RBI total (40 to 75). In that time they have also risen in the rankings in batting average (22nd to 15th), runs scored (29th to 25th), hits (19th to 12th), on-base percentage (27th to 25th) and slugging percentage (29th to 25th). Although some of the improvements have been minimal, at least they aren’t going in the other direction.
One main reason for Philadelphia hanging tough is closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon locked down his ninth save Tuesday night and has yet to blow a lead this season. He boasts an outstanding 0.82 ERA and WHIP and has a batting-average against south of .170. The only earned run he has allowed all year was a solo homerun to Miami’s Austin Kearns. That came in his second appearance of the year on April 9 and was in a non-save situation. On top of that, the right-hander has not allowed a hit in his last six appearances.
Still, the Phillies’ playoff hopes will rely on their offense producing at a much more consistent clip. Things are starting to look up even without a timetable for Utley or Howard’s return. Jimmy Rollins currently has a four-game hitting streak in which he has raised his average from .216 to .247. Placido Polanco has risen his average over 70 points in the last two weeks. Catcher Carlos Ruiz (.309), left fielder Juan Pierre (.313) and utility man Ty Wiggington (.317) are all hitting over .300. That’s nice considering Pierre and Wiggington weren’t considered to be every-day starters entering the year. Lastly, Laynce Nix has even made the most of his recent opportunities and is hitting a respectable .281.
The only Phillie that has gone in the opposite direction as of late has been Shane Victorino. Victorino has been in quite a slump, as he is just seven for his last 45. His average has fallen from .315 to .229 since April 20.
Now is not the time for Phillies fans to put their heads down. Despite all of Philadelphia’s supposed ‘problems,’ it currently sits just a few games out of first place in the division. Sure it may be the Phils’ roughest start since 2009, but keep in mind they still went to the World Series that year.
If Utley and Howard can return sometime in early-to-mid June with the team still within striking distance, and even though that is a big ‘if,’ they will be in great shape for the stretch run. All the Phillies have to do is keep themselves afloat until that time.