PHILADELPHIA -- Do the Phillies have one great run in them?
Manager Charlie Manuel hopes so.
"I'll keep trying," he said. "I will never ever let up. I will always try."
It is Manuel's greatest challenge yet. The Phillies (37-50) are under .500 at the All-Star break for the first time since 2006, when they were 40-47. It is their worst record at the break since 1997, when they were 24-61. Looking for a sliver of hope, they are quick to mention they trailed the New York Mets by seven games with 17 games to play in 2007, but still won the National League East championship. They also point out the St. Louis Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games in the National League Wild Card race in late August last season, but won the Wild Card on their way to winning the World Series.
But those teams were not 13 games under .500 at the break, like the Phillies. Those teams also needed cooperation (i.e. historic collapses) from the teams ahead of them.
Nearly everything went wrong for the Phillies in the first half. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley opened the season on the disabled list. John Mayberry Jr. did not become the everyday player they thought he could be. Hunter Pence struggled with runners in scoring position. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco performed below their career averages. Freddy Galvis proved to be a whiz defensively, but fractured a bone in his back before getting suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's policy against performance-enhancing substances.
The Phillies lost relief pitchers Jose Contreras, Mike Stutes and David Herndon for the season due to injuries. Chad Qualls, who the Phillies hoped would be one of their setup men, struggled.
Those performances and losses helped cripple the offense and bullpen, the last of which has been a liability since the beginning of the season.
|MVP: Carlos Ruiz Has been one of the best hitters in baseball the first half of the season.|
|Cy Young: Cole Hamels Hamels has been the Phillies' most reliable pitcher this year.|
|Rookie: Freddy Galvis Defensive whiz, suspended 50 games for PED use.|
|Top reliever: Jonathan Papelbon He made the All-Star team.|
But even if the offense and bullpen have struggled -- although the offense is fifth in the league in runs per game since May 1 -- the Phillies still expected to be competitive because they had one of the best rotations in baseball. They had Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. All three finished in the top five in National League Cy Young voting last season. The rotation also had Vance Worley, who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, and Joe Blanton, who should be a competent fifth starter in any rotation.
But the Phillies have not had one of the best rotations in baseball. They are 11th in the National League with a 4.04 ERA. They are 14th with a 5.03 ERA since Halladay landed on the DL on May 28.
If it's one thing one night, it's another thing the next.
The bright spots? That's easy. Carlos Ruiz has been the team's MVP, earning a trip to his first All-Star Game. Hamels has pitched well, entering the second half with 10 wins and a spot on the All-Star team. Jonathan Papelbon also made the All-Star team, converting 18 of 20 save opportunities, although he hasn't worked nearly as much as the Phillies had hoped.
But the Phillies need more than just a few players to perform in the second half. They need everybody. It should help to have Utley and Howard in the lineup on a regular basis in the second half. Halladay should be back shortly after the break. But the offense needs to improve its situational hitting, the rotation needs to pitch deeper in games and the bullpen needs to hold leads or keep games close when they are trailing.
Players to watch in second half
|Antonio Bastardo The Phillies need more consistency from their setup man.|
|Ryan Howard Will less than 100 percent be good enough for the Phillies' slugger?|
|Roy Halladay Phillies need him to get the rotation back on track.|
"It's up to us," Halladay said. "It really is. We can tuck our tails or we can fight. There's a chance we fight and still come up short, but I'd rather do it that way than admit defeat halfway through the year. I think we've got a long ways to go. We've got a lot of things that can improve that I think we're looking forward to in the second half. I believe we have the mentality that we're going to go out and play hard. If we come up short, we come up short, but I don't think it's going to be due to a lack of effort or a lack of interest. I feel like we have a chance and we're going to go out and play that way."
"I definitely don't think it's gone the way I expected or gone the way anybody had expected here," Papelbon said. "No one expects us to be in last place. I think there is a lot of baseball left. I was in a situation where a team was down nine games with a month to go [the Rays last season]. So if you want to ask me that question, I say, hey, there's still plenty of time. Some adjustments have to be made, yeah. But there's no reason to throw in the towel or wave the white flag by any means."
But talk is cheap. It won't be easy.
"People think just because you put on a Phillies uniform ... that doesn't make you an All-Star player," Manuel said. "What the [heck]? We've got to work to improve."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.