The bright side of a slow start

I talked to John Smoltz the other day for an upcoming story that should run in next week's SportsWeek. I asked him what he thought about the way managers use their closers, opting to save their best bullpen weapon for a save situation even if it means keeping them sidelined for the most pivotal moment of a game. Smoltz is old school, but he is also pragmatic, which is why even though he acknowledges the counterintuitivness of some of the late-game strategy that managers employ, he understands why the vast majority of them adhere to the same line of thinking. 

"It's about managers having to answer questions afterward about why they mixed it up and why they changed," Smoltz said. 

In other words, if you go by the book, and your team loses, you can blame it on the book. But you go alone, and your team loses, it's your fault. That doesn't justify anything. But it is human nature, and I was thinking about this last night as the Phillies beat the Cubs to move above .500 for the first time since Opening Day.

Like most human beings, managers are hesitant to stray outside their comfort zone. It's why Jimmy Rollins always hits leadoff and Ryan Howard always hits fourth and Chase Utley always hits third. It's what the book says to do, and it has worked in the past, and so Charlie Manuel goes with it. It's also why so many people have so much respect for Joe Maddon, because he doesn't always pay a hell of a lot of attention to the book. 

Which is why a part of me thinks that these first couple of months of Phillies baseball could end up being a net positive by the time we get to September. It takes dramatic events to push managers outside of their comfort zones, and Manuel has experienced his fair share since Game 5 of last October's NLDS. And if the Phillies can survive life without Howard and Utley and life with Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence struggling and life with a grab bag of set-up men in front of Jonathan Papelbon, they just might end up with a team that is more well-rounded than the one they would have fielded had everything gone according to plan. 

Some examples. . .

1) Juan Pierre: Anybody who read this blog during spring training knew that I had plenty of reservations about a lineup that included Juan Pierre in a featured role. I'm still not convinced that the team would not have been better off pursuing one of the outfielders who were available this offseason. Through 35 games, Josh Willingham is hitting .294/.417/.597 with seven home runs for the Twins. Through 37 games, David DeJesus is hitting .279/.368/.397 with 12 extra base hits for the Cubs. Through 36 games, Carlos Beltran is hitting .293/.404/.642 with 13 home runs for the Cardinals. Money, obviously, was the big factor in all three situations. All of them are making at least $5 million a season on multi-year deals. Pierre is making less than $1 million. Say what you want about the early-season minor league struggles of the recently-traded Scott Podsednik, who had a terrific spring training for the Phillies, it's impossible to use a disappointed veteran's performance at Triple-A as a projection of what he would have done at the major league level.

But the fact is, Pierre went 2-for-5 and scored a run last night and in 117 plate appearances is hitting .343/.388/.380. His .374 batting average on balls in play suggests that those numbers will normalize: at some point, a singles hitter is bound to see his would-be singles end up as groundouts and lineouts and soft fly outs. Those are just the odds. But the opportunity to play has had two benefits. First, it has allowed Pierre to get comfortable at the plate and on the base paths, where he has reduced the blunders that marred the first few weeks of the season. Second, it has allowed Manuel to see first-hand the kinds of things that Pierre will be able to do once he is a role player. In nine pinch-hit plate appearances, he has two hits and two walks and has gone on to score two runs. He can still beat out a bunt or put a ball in play against any type of pitcher. The Phillies did not have that type of player last year, a player who Manuel might have been able to call upon against a locked-in Chris Carpenter to scrap his way onto base and make something happen.

2) Freddy Galvis: As late as mid-March, the 22-year-old rookie was expected to start the season at Triple-A, where he would attempt to build upon the progress he displayed at the plate last season. A month-and-a-half into the season, Galvis has yet to prove that he is ready to handle major league pitching on an everyday basis. His on base percentage heading into tonight's game against the Red Sox is .270. Of the 91 qualified NL hitters, only seven have reached base at a lesser rate. That's a lot of outs. If Galvis had an OBP at the league average of .317, he would have made six fewer outs in his 128 plate appearances. That's two full offensive innings. But the opportunity to play has given us the ability to see that Galvis has the potential to play a gold glove second base. And it has shown that he has some legitimate pop from the left side of the plate, where half of his hits have gone for extra bases.

3) Carlos Ruiz: Going back to the 2008 postseason, Ruiz has shown himself to be, in the words of Dickie V, a PTPer. I remember talking to Ruiz after a spring training game in Dunedin, and how determined he sounded to help make up for the loss of Howard and Utley's bats in the lineup. He had made a concerted effort to add muscle and durability to his frame during the offseason. And I don't think it is a stretch to suggest that his current .363/.405/.619 batting line and seven home runs are at least partially attributable to the responsibility he feels to be a leader at the plate in addition to behind it. Ruiz is tied for eighth in the NL with 27 RBI despite spending the vast majority of the season hitting in the lower third of the order.

Ruiz plays a tough position. All it takes is one foul ball or errant swing of the bat or collision at home to throw his physical equilibrium out of whack. But right now, he is showing signs of having the ability to play a central role in a lineup. And if that convinces Manuel that Ruiz can hit sixth or even fifth regularly, that's a win in my book. 

The list goes on. Even after last night's near-meltdown, the Phillies are still in a position where they need to give a young reliever like Jake Diekman the chance to prove himself. Maybe his command will end up being a problem. Maybe we'll get more outings like his major league debut. Either way, the results are secondary to knowing whether or not he can do the job. Last year, the Phillies were forced to put Antonio Bastardo and Mike Stutes into similar situations, and the knowledge they gained allowed them to focus on upgrading the offense instead of the bullpen at the trade deadline. 

Another player who could end up getting a chance to show what he can do is Mike Fontenot, who has turned two impressive at-bats thus far, one of them as a pinch-hitter. 

Of course, all of this is contingent on Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. If one of those two players does not return to a form close to what they have shown over the last couple of years, the Phillies are still going to be lacking one of the most important ingredients of a successful lineup, which is a centerpiece player. Maybe Pence is getting more comfortable in that role. He had a good at-bat last night in which he took several pitches that we have seen him swing wildly at during the first month-plus of the season. Maybe he can start to feel comfortable in the four-hole and string more of those together. 

But at this point, Utley and Howard are still key components, as are Antonio Bastardo and Jose Contreras. 

If Utley and Howard do return to contribute, and the Phillies suddenly have a catcher with his confidence at an all-time high, and a couple of reliable contact-type reserves/pinch-hitters in Pierre and Fontenot, and a righty/lefty power combo of Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix, and a rotational outfielder/first baseman who can slide back into the role in which he thrived last season in John Mayberry Jr., well, all of a sudden Manuel will have a well-rounded, balanced roster with a variety of different weapons at his disposal. Shane Victorino is still bound to get hot, too. 

Granted, that's a lot of ifs. And a five-game winning streak against the Padres and Cubs is no reason to think the Phillies have rediscovered anything other than their ability to prove themselves superior to some of the worst teams in the National League .500. 

But it is Friday, and the Phillies are above .500, and the Red Sox are in town, and all of that calls for a little bit of positive thinking.