Phillies’ lineup show­ing signs of des­per­a­tion

The Review - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Columnist

In their too-of­ten-mis­er­able his­tory, the Phillies have had two five-year pe­ri­ods of ex­cel­lence. Each one was easy to see com­ing.

The first blast of sus­tain­able ex­cel­lence was from 1976 through 1980, when the Phillies fin­ished in first place four times and won a World Se­ries. The sec­ond lasted from 2007 un­til 2011, with five first-place fin­ishes, two World Se­ries ap­pear­ances and the fran­chise’s sec­ond world cham­pi­onship.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two mini-eras are un­de­ni­able. Though there would be the ob­vi­ous and nec­es­sary ad­di­tions through the process, both dy­nas­ties were con­structed upon a farm­raised nu­cleus of even­tual Hall of Fame can­di­dates. Mike Sch­midt, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone and Greg Luzin­ski made up that first en­sem­ble cast. The sec­ond would in­clude Jimmy Rollins, Chase Ut­ley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. None of it would have worked with­out Garry Mad­dox and Jayson Werth, Brad Lidge and Tug McGraw, Steve Carl­ton and Roy Hal­la­day, Raul Ibanez and Pete Rose. But with­out that orig­i­nal base, those im­ports would not have made cham­pi­onship dif­fer­ence.

And so it was by 1975, with Boone, Bowa, Sch­midt and Luzin­ski all con­tribut­ing, a stir­ring had be­gun, with the Phillies never fur­ther from first place than three games af­ter June 6. With that, their sec­ond-place fin­ish was not as much dis­ap­point­ing as in­trigu­ing. Sim­i­larly, the 2006 Phillies, with Ut­ley, Howard, Rollins and Hamels con­tribut­ing heav­ily, made a push for a wild­card play­off spot with an 18-10 Septem­ber, fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the N.L. East, but again hint­ing at cham­pi­onship po­ten­tial.

There was some­thing there …

There was some­thing there …

But are the 2018 Phillies, who are run­ning out of time to win their di­vi­sion, in that spot again? Or has it all just been a pop-up show, a cir­cus-tent event, one of those here-and-gone spec­ta­cles ca­pa­ble of pro­vided quick but flimsy en­ter­tain­ment?

The 2018 plan was promised as a 2006 re­boot, with the front of­fice fi­nally declar­ing that noth­ing would hap­pen un­til the farm sys­tem was re­built and then or­der­ing the fans not to grum­ble for four, five, six years or more. So, the cus­tomers waited. And they were re­warded with strangely riv­et­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally odd sea­son that

yet could wind up in a cham­pagne tsunami. Yet is it sus­tain­able, in the way the 1976-1980 and 2007-2011 pro­duc­tions were?

By Sun­day, the Phillies were breath­ing hard af­ter fall­ing an­other game be­hind the Braves a night ear­lier. Gabe Kapler, ever un­afraid to try any lineup, would choose one with three of his first five hit­ters hav­ing ar­rived late in the sea­son. Only Rhys Hoskins and Ce­sar Her­nan­dez, who is 28 and in his sixth bigleague sea­son, were dis­cov­ered and pro­duced by the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Even if Jorge Al­faro, who’d ar­rived in a trade, and Odubel Her­rera, a Rule 5 pick-up, can be con­sid­ered as honorary fran­chise-raised tal­ents, the lineup car­ried a dis­tinct scent of des­per­a­tion.

Where was the young nu­cleus for which fans were made to wait so pa­tiently? Wasn’t J.P. Craw­ford sup­posed to be an every-day in­field force by now? How about Scott Kingery, a won­der­ful de­fender who can­not hit well enough to keep 32-year-old rental As­drubal Cabr­era from reg­u­lar time? If Dy­lan Cozens was the left­handed power threat he’d been sub­tly mar­keted as, the Phils would not have needed to bor­row 30-year-old Justin Bour, who started Sun­day at first base. And as the games grow in value, why is it that Kapler has more con­fi­dence in Jose Bautista, 37, than Aaron Altherr, 27, as a righthanded-hit­ting out­field op­tion?

Matt Klen­tak did a nice job pro­vid­ing Kapler with some veteran pieces to lend sup­port to a pen­nant race. But three of them, who weren’t good enough to help their pre­vi­ous teams con­tend, were in the top five of the bat­ting or­der Sun­day. That was not the plan.

The Phillies were pre­par­ing to face Ja­cob deGrom, thus ex­plain­ing their lineup em­pha­sis on of­fense, not de­fense. Be­cause the Mets scratched deGrom late in fa­vor of Corey Oswalt, and by the third in­ning, Bour was out and Kingery was in.

“It was just a pre­planned move,” Kapler said af­ter a 6-4 loss to the Mets. “We put Bour at the top of the lineup for a very spe­cific rea­son. We’re look­ing to get him two at-bats. It’s a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult to de­ploy him when the left-handed pitcher is al­ways loom­ing in their bullpen. So when we know a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, we look to get him a cou­ple of at-bats and look to get as much of­fense as pos­si­ble with the mind­set that if we catch a lead we can then switch to de­fense and have a de­fen­sive ap­proach to the game.”

The Phillies did take the early lead when Hoskins hit a two-run, first-in­ning home run.

“So then we put Kingery at short­stop, Cabr­era gets to move to third base and Santana moved back to first base,” Kapler said. “And now we’ve got a lead and we’ve got our best de­fense out there to pro­tect it.”

That made sense. Still, the lineup Kapler did set­tle on was a re­flec­tion of a man­ager and a team try­ing to win a di­vi­sion cham­pi­onship, not a suc­ces­sion of di­vi­sion cham­pi­onships.

For years, John Mid­dle­ton has been mak­ing noises that he will spend the Phillies to ful­fill­ment. He has the cash, and who would com­plain? Add Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or both next sea­son, and the Phillies could win the N.L. East with enough time be­fore the play­offs to rest their reg­u­lars. Be­lieve that, though, when it hap­pens. And spread even more skep­ti­cism around the con­cept of an­other bud­ding dy­nasty.

Sch­midt, Bowa, Boone and Luzin­ski were among the best play­ers of their gen­er­a­tion. So were Rollins, Ut­ley, Howard and Hamels. With the ex­cep­tion of Aaron Nola and Hoskins, who hit his 30th home run of the sea­son Sun­day, the Phillies do not have that level of ready, home-grown tal­ent.

They just have older, rental play­ers in key Septem­ber roles … and di­min­ish­ing hope that it can work.

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