One midweek series with the Phillies and your scorecards are reduced to a jumbled rendering of baseball's unique hieroglyphics - question marks sprouting in the margins like weeds in an untended garden, exclamation points screaming for attention, substitutions and switches and pitching changes making the canvas something that might have been created by Jackson Pollock, if he were desperately trying to keep his art career above .500.
Like the duck as it glides across the water, the Phillies can appear serene as they have navigated the first two months of the season - a little too serene at times - but they are paddling furiously beneath the surface. Are they getting anywhere, or is the current in the NL East going to be a bit too strong for them again?
Just one more question mark in the margins.
"We've got to go like hell," manager Charlie Manuel said last night, giving his opinion of the situation.
Getting swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks - a downer of a homecoming finished off by the 4-3 power failure of a loss - is no more surprising than the preceding road sweep of Atlanta. The Phillies are capable of anything because, as they are constructed, the dividing line between winning and losing is always frighteningly narrow.
In 2006, and again this season, the Phillies have collected one-third of their wins when the opposition scores five or more runs. This is a testament to an offense that can meld speed and power into a force able to overcome so-so pitching. It is also no way to play the game of baseball.
"I've said over and over we need to get more consistent play," Manuel said at some point this week. But saying it doesn't make the roster he was given more reliable or pliable.
Faster than almost any manager one can remember, Manuel runs out of players on a regular basis in tight games. This is because there are too many pitchers on the roster (12) - only a handful of whom can be depended upon after, say, the third inning - and too many position players who are one-dimensional. This guy can hit but not field or run. This guy can run but can't hit. This guy can hit for power but doesn't make contact enough. It is a team of specialists in a sport that rarely rewards craftsmen without a full tool kit at their disposal.
So what's a manager to do, aside from get his chestnuts roasted regularly by the fan base? Picking the wings off Manuel's decisions has become a nightly parlor game, something to pass the time until the Eagles begin training camp.
In the opener of the Arizona series, Manuel opted to let pitcher Freddy Garcia hit for himself with the Phillies trailing by three runs and the bases loaded in the fifth inning. The decision was a coin flip, nothing more. Either side of the equation could be argued.
Manuel was understandably loath to reach into the bag of tricks that is his bullpen, and also mindful that the temperamental Garcia has been simmering over early hooks, and generally hoping that, with one out, Garcia would do nothing more than get out of the way and bring Jimmy Rollins to the plate. A first-pitch 1-2-3 double-play is what he got instead, and it is a mournful passage on that night's scorecard, a thick line drawn beneath it to indicate the abrupt, inflexible end to another lost opportunity.
The decisions can't be judged by their results, of course. It's possible that Pat Burrell or Wes Helms could have come off the bench to hit a grand slam in that situation. And equally possible that someone in the bullpen would have taken over for Garcia and given those runs right back. In the local blistering of Manuel, however, the road not taken is always smoothly paved.
Manuel is actually like a card player whose hand stinks. You can bluff along and play it the best way possible, but eventually the cards talk.
This season, the cards are saying that general manager Pat Gillick had a mediocre off-season. Wes Helms, touted as the answer at third base, has fielded the position only adequately at best and produced disappointing power numbers. His slugging percentage is better only than that of Michael Bourn. Abraham Nuñez and Greg Dobbs are in there now as often as not.
Catcher Rod Barajas has had other issues recently - and enough about that - but the indictment of Gillick in his case is that Barajas is essentially unnecessary. The organization didn't have enough confidence in Carlos Ruiz, which is a significant case of misjudging one's players.
Adam Eaton and Garcia are serviceable additions to the rotation. They take the ball and pitch it, consuming needed innings along the way. The top end for both is about 14-12 with ERAs over 4.50, however. Good enough to get you beat every other time.
The bullpen is the real mess, though. This just in! How could a canny, veteran general manager paint himself into such an ugly corner?
Injured closer Tom Gordon said this week that he really hasn't felt good since last June or July, but Gillick went with him anyway. When Gordon predictably broke down, the Phillies compounded the problem by robbing their rotation of Brett Myers. (The move was partly motivated by the need to put Jon Lieber back in a role where he would do something aside from pout and blame others for his situation.) The rest of the bullpen is no bargain, and it is over-populated, leaving Manuel with very little flexibility on the bench.
All of this leads to games that begin placidly enough but then devolve into fire drills from the sixth inning on, with actors entering and leaving the stage rapidly, and the hurried punctuation of the game becoming spattered across the crowded final acts of the scorecard.
Again, this is no way to play baseball, but until the roster makes more sense, the Phillies have little choice in the matter.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.