You can't say that anything that unfolded before your eyes on Saturday night came as a surprise. Throughout the offseason and spring training, we wrote about how the Phillies' rhetoric about playing a more situational brand of baseball did not necessarily fit the personnel that they had in place. I'm probably going to sound like an apologist here, because however you want to break it down, the strings that Charlie Manuel pulled resulted in a 2-1 loss that extended one of the uglier stretches of offense that you will see out of a team that entered the season as the odds-on favorite to win the National League pennant. At the same time, you almost have to look at the first couple of weeks of the season as an extension of spring training as the coaching staff familiarizes itself with how to handle its new personnel. Better to pull the wrong strings now and learn from those mistakes then to do later in the season.
Let's break down some of the pivotal moments as they unfolded.
1) Jimmy Rollins' bunt with two on and no out in the first inning
Manuel said Rollins laid down the sacrifice on his own. In the first game of the season, he bunted for a base hit, and he probably thought that he had a chance to both move the runners and reach first safely. That didn't happen, but the Phillies still had runners on second and third with one out and the four and five-hole hitters up. Hunter Pence hit an infield single to score Shane Victorino, leaving the Phillies with runners at the corners with one out. Clearly, they needed to push another run home there. But Laynce Nix, who has always been a swing-and-miss, low-OBP type of hitter, struck out swinging, and John Mayberry Jr. then flied out to end the frame.
Rollins had good career numbers against Jeff Karstens, and the guys who study probability will tell you that it is almost never a wise decision to give up an out on a bunt. Manuel did not sound disappointed with the decision.
"Jimmy did that on his own," Manuel said. "We've been talking about that. All those things we talked about in spring training."
Really, the key at-bat was Nix striking out, not Rollins bunting.
2) Juan Pierre pinch-hitting to lead off the eighth inning in 1-1 game
In hindsight, they would have been better off using Thome and then pinch-running for him if he happened to get on base. But hindsight is 20/20, and when Manuel made the decision, I thought it made sense. The whole reason Pierre is on the roster is because the Phillies like his ability to lead off an inning by getting on base, as well as his ability to steal bases and put himself into scoring position. In the end, Pierre struck out, something he has rarely done over the course of his career.
3) The ninth inning
Here is where things clearly unraveled. Hunter Pence led off with a walk, putting the go-ahead run on first base with nobody out. Manuel had Thome up, but elected to let Nix hit, explaining later that he liked Thome better against Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan than he liked John Mayberry Jr., whom Thome eventually pinch-hit for. Manuel also said that Nix told him that he could get a bunt down. The obvious counter argument to that is that actions speak louder than words, and Nix had not attempted a bunt since 2010, and had only attempted seven in his career. He was 2-for-2 on sacrifice bunt attempts in 2010 and 4-for-5 in his career. But then the counter argument to that is that Nix is a swing-and-miss guy and does not walk much, and the Phillies needed to get that runner over. So it was either let Nix do what he does, which is hit the ball hard and hope for the best, pinch-hit for him, or have him bunt. He needed to stay in the game in order to play left field, since Manuel said he absolutely wanted Thome to hit and therefore would have to remove John Mayberry Jr. from the game. Perhaps Pete Orr could have come on to bunt and then play left field, but Manuel went with Nix, and Nix popped out.
"I wanted to get him over," Manuel said. "When he didn't do it, I wanted Thome to hit. I wanted Thome to hit there somewhere in that game. We're in the ninth inning, I figured I had to use him somewhere. He's supposed to hit in that game.
"I asked Nix could he bunt, he said yeah, I can bunt. I can get her down."
Manuel then called on Thome, who ended up striking out. The move meant sending Nix to left field and putting Ty Wigginton at first base, which is not the ideal defense. Did the defense hurt? Could Mayberry have stretched further for the ball, getting it into his glove before Alex Presley reached base on the walk-off infield single to short stop? Who knows.
"I liked Thome against Hanrahan better than Mayberry against Hanrahan," Manuel said. "We're in the ninth inning, we've got to try to win the game. And also, Thome has to hit there. He has to hit somewhere. He either had to hit where I hit Pierre, or he has to hit somewhere for Nix or Mayberry. If Pence would have hit a double, more than likely I would have let Thome hit."
4) Joe Blanton pitching
Again, not the ideal situation. And the fact that Antonio Bastardo did not pitch an entire inning might tell you more about the Phillies' confidence in the lefty than it does about Manuel's ability to handle his bullpen. Keep in mind Rich Dubee makes most of the pitching decisions. Bastardo has had some velocity issues. Using him for one out left the Phillies with Jonathan Papelbon, David Herndon, lefty Joe Savery and Blanton. Blanton is scheduled to start Thursday, which he can still do on normal rest. The other obivous option was to go to Papelbon. The philosophy of keeping your best reliever out of a tie game just because it is on the road has always puzzled me a bit. But it is a philosophy that is not unique to Manuel and Dubee. We've been down this road before. No sense in debating it again.
Maybe Tony La Russa would have played things differnetly. A the same time, La Russa has Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and David Freese hitting in the middle of his order had Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and David Freese hitting in the middle of his order (edit: my bad). The fact is, the Phillies offense just does not have great personnel right now, something that we have emphasized for the better part of two months. The Phillies brought in Nix because they felt he could give them a cheap left-handed power bat against right-handed pitching, not because they felt he could move runners. The best option there probably was to let Nix swing away and let the chips fall where they may. The bigger point is that there aren't a whole lot of good options right now, which is what has made the first 18 innings of offense in 2012 so difficult to watch.