LAST NIGHT, on "Daily News Live," on Comcast SportsNet, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. twice mentioned a lack of "urgency" in the DNA of this year's club, saying the healthy regulars who still inhabit the first five spots of the team's lineup need to find some, and fast.
Manager Charlie Manuel framed it differently. You hope, he said, that the players you plug in would play so well that the regulars would feel challenged and respond accordingly.
But the message from on high, forged by a day's worth of closed-door meetings, was clear. And seemingly in contrast to the one conveyed by Ryan Howard in Pittsburgh over the weekend, after the Phillies scored 12 runs against the Pirates, or the one expressed by Shane Victorino after last night's 7-5 loss to the first-place Braves pushed the Phillies six games out.
"One thing about this team," Howard had said over the weekend, "is we don't panic."
"There's nothing good about being urgent," said Victorino, whose seventh-inning home run temporarily quelled the populace's unrest over his production this season. "In the game of baseball, you use the word 'urgency,' it means there's nothing good that's coming out of it.
"When you panic, you're adding pressure to yourself."
So what is panic and what is urgency? And is there a difference? When Howard says, as he did after they gave Roy Halladay one run to work with in a loss to the Twins two Sundays ago, that "I don't think this stretch is going to last the entire second half. We're going to get hot and then all this will be pretty much forgotten" - is that a lack of urgency or a sound approach? Is that swagger or foolhardiness?
"It's June," Howard said that day. "Nobody remembers what your record was in June. Everybody remembers where you are at the end of September."
Two nights ago, Howard found himself on third base with no one out in the seventh inning of a tie game. Jayson Werth struck out without taking one swing.
Last night, after Jimmy Rollins led off the Phillies' first with the first of two doubles, Victorino bunted the ball back to the mound, as Rollins stood frozen in disbelief.
As did most of the 44,282 on hand.
There's a sense of urgency there, for sure, especially when game-time temperature is 96 degrees. They boo, they groan, they panic with each failed attempt to score a man from third base with fewer than two outs.
It's getting late early in these parts, to paraphrase Yogi, or so is the feel. You look to the scoreboard now in hopes that the rest of the division lost, too, hoping to buy another day for a team that more and more appears in need of a complete do-over.
"I'm hearing fans yelling, 'Victorino, you're horrible; you stink,' " the centerfielder said. "Aw, right. Like they forget what happened the last 2 years. That frustrates me even more . . . You hear things like that, it eats at you. I mean Jimmy used that word. I'm not going to use it. But you know what I'm talking about."
Jimmy Rollins got in a little hot water calling fans frontrunners a few years back.
Maybe you heard about it.
Truth is, we hate the front of these campaigns, which have always been exercises in footing and survival. They were 44-38 a year ago, and then only after sweeping a punchless Mets team and winning two of the first three games in a four-game series with Cincinnati.
In 2008, they were 48-43 on July 8.
In 2007, they were a losing ballclub as late as July 19 (47-48).
So why does this feel different?
Because, other than Howard, the stars are not hitting, not driving in runs and, above all, not winning games with lateinning heroics.
I asked the manager last night whether he had a number he thought would win the division or get this team in its fourth postseason. He said it would be about the same as in years past, 90 wins, 91, maybe 92. But the Braves are a better and more complete team than a year ago, and the Mets, Manuel said, are not pretending either.
The Braves are playing at a pace that would give them 95 victories, the Mets are on pace to win 90. Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego, Los Angeles and Colorado all have more victories than the Phillies do.
"I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Bleep, we're done,' " Victorino said. "We've got to figure this out. But not through panic and not by throwing in the towel. We panic, we're going to add pressure on ourselves. And there's enough pressure, enough failure in this game without that." *
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