MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Charlie Manuel will often talk about his regulars needing to produce their career averages for the Phillies to succeed.
Through 35 games, four players had done just that: Jimmy Rollins (.286 in 2011, .273 career), Shane Victorino (.289, .279), Placido Polanco (.354, .304) and Ryan Howard (.274, .278) had either exceeded or almost equaled their career batting averages.
The Phillies' offensive problems lie at the bottom of the order, which has been one of the worst in the National League.
Consider this: Entering Wednesday's game, Phillies pitchers had a better OPS (.554) than hitters from the eight spot (.504). Phillies second basemen (.557) and catchers (.574) each have the worst OPS in the league at their respective positions.
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Wednesday brought change: The second basemen and catchers were 4 for 8 with three extra-base hits and three runs scored. That, however, was the exception to the rule.
Help, of course, is nearing. Chase Utley, owner of a career .894 OPS, will play his second rehab game Thursday for single-A Clearwater. Carlos Ruiz, who has a career .747 OPS, will also play Thursday for Clearwater and should be activated Friday when the Phillies begin a series in Atlanta.
Not surprisingly, playing a collection of backups and replacement-level players at second and catcher like Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr, Michael Martinez, Brian Schneider and Dane Sardinha has created something of a black hole in the bottom of the order.
"That's who we have and who we play," Manuel said. "We depend on them to help us. We've had guys who've done that. When we get Utley and Ruiz back, yeah, our lineup will be better."
It hurt especially in Tuesday's tight game. With the bases loaded in the second and no outs, Sardinha failed to put the ball in play, striking out. Roy Halladay struck out looking before Rollins grounded out to second.
As Manuel pointed out afterward, even if Sardinha hits into a double play, the Phillies score a run.
In the third inning, the bases were loaded again, this time with two outs. Orr swung at the first pitch and grounded out to short.
When Orr came to bat in the seventh inning of Wednesday's game, he had one extra-base hit. By the time the game ended, he had tripled his total.
Manuel called Orr's seventh-inning double the hit that turned the momentum of the game.
The manager has attempted to mix and match at both vacant positions so as to not wear anyone out. Orr has started frequently at second of late. Schneider has most of the starts behind the plate, but the manager is weary of overusing the 34-year-old catcher. He left with a strained left hamstring Wednesday and could need the disabled list.
Incredibly, Houston Astros pitchers have a better OPS (.593) than Phillies second basemen and catchers (in about half of the plate appearances). Clearly, the Phillies should have kept J.A. Happ (5 for 11 at the plate) to bolster the lineup.
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