BY THE EIGHTH inning of their latest 2 1/2-hour siesta, the Phillies had reached a level that is normally inhabited by rush-hour car wrecks and inconsiderate ex-girlfriends and failing music careers: so bad, you can't help but watch.
That was the case, at least, for a sizable bloc of fans who remained in their seats through the first seven innings of Sunday's debacle against the Cubs. For close to 2 hours, they watched as the Phillies stumbled around the field (an errant pickoff attempt that led to one run, a misplayed fly ball that led to another), the base paths (a runner thrown out while attempting to advance on a wild pitch), and, of course, the batter's box, where Matt Garza became the latest pitcher to descend upon the Citizens Bank Park mound as Cy Young incarnate.
By the time the Cubs extended their lead to 3-0 in the fourth inning, you felt like walking through the aisles and reminding people that it is impolite to stare. These were no longer spectators at a sporting event. They were rubberneckers. The sun was shining, the Flyers were hosting a playoff game, and the Phillies were down by three runs in a season in which they had scored two or fewer in more than half of their games. Yet the procession toward the parking lot did not begin in earnest until two outs in the eighth, when the Cubs extended their lead to 5-0 and the masses finally came to the realization that it was time to get a head start on traffic.
In one sense, you can't blame them. Over the past 5 years, the Phillies have left many early departees ruing their lack of faith. Once upon a time, a 3-0 deficit was something that could be overcome with a few swings of the bat. But 22 games into this 2012 season, a recalibration of expectations might be in order. April is almost over, and the Phillies have yet to provide a shred of proof that they are anything other than a .500 baseball team.
If that sounds harsh, well, it should. The blueprint for survival without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard looks remarkably similar to what has unfolded over the past 3-plus weeks. The starting pitching has been dominant. Even Sunday, Kyle Kendrick managed to hold the Cubs to three runs in six innings of work despite struggling with his command in the early going. The bullpen has protected the leads it has been given: On Saturday, Jonathan Papelbon recorded his seventh save, while Chad Qualls again held an opponent scoreless in the eighth inning. The schedule has been weak: The Phillies have faced two teams that entered Sunday with a winning record. Nearly a third of their games have come against the two teams with the worst record in the National League.
Everything has played out as the Phillies had hoped. Yet they enter Monday with a 10-12 record and an offense that ranks among the worst in the National League in most major categories (most importantly, runs).
Heading into the season, Charlie Manuel occasionally used the phrase "keep our heads above water" to describe the mindset with Utley and Howard likely to be out for at least the first couple months of the season. Sunday, the veteran manager wasn't quite sure how to characterize his team's pursuit of that objective.
"I don't know if we are keeping our head above water, but I feel like we are treading water," Manuel said. "I feel like we've got to play a lot better. We can't get far behind. But I know this: We've got to pick it up if we're going to do that."
The last time things looked this bleak was July 21, 2010, when the Phillies dropped to 48-46 with a 5-1 loss to the Cardinals. They finished that season at 97-65 with a six-game lead in the NL East. Which is why you do not get a sense of panic when you gauge the mood in the clubhouse. But in 2010, the Braves were winning at a .585 clip, good enough for the second-best record in the National League. This year, the Braves are playing .636 ball, and the Nationals are even better, and the only positive thing you can say about the Phillies is that they are not the Marlins.
Maybe that's why Manuel has been seeing his veterans doing un-veteran things, like Juan Pierre getting thrown out at second base on the aforementioned wild pitch, and Hunter Pence misjudging the aforementioned fly ball, one of several he has botched since the start of the season, and Jimmy Rollins battling to stay above the Mendoza Line. Baseball is a hard enough game with a clear mind. The last thing the Phillies need is their established players attempting to play hero.
"I think at times some guys are trying too hard," said Laynce Nix, who started at first base Sunday. "Everyone is trying to be the one who makes a difference . . . We're all trying to get it going and be the one to make a difference."
In reality, the biggest potential difference-makers are the two players on the disabled list. Utley and Howard are both hoping to head to Clearwater, Fla., in the near future to start working their way back into baseball shape. As ugly as the first month has been, the addition of even one of those players to the lineup could be all it takes to turn low-scoring losses into low-scoring wins. The season is still young, and the Phillies still have plenty of reason to believe that they will enter September with a realistic shot at their sixth straight division crown.
But things could get worse before they get better. The Phillies' first seven opponents of the season entered Sunday with a combined record of 64-82. Their next 13 opponents had a combined record of 147-125. That stretch runs into the second week of June, which is probably the earliest you can hope that Howard and Utley are back and performing close to their usual selves.
Starting Tuesday, the Phillies will play six straight games against the Nationals and Braves, who are tied for the division lead. The Phils are four games behind.
The optimistic view is that the Phillies have the chance to play their way back to the top of the heap. The pessimistic view is that they have provided little reason for optimism.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org