PITTSBURGH - With one uninspiring performance after another, especially at the plate, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg and his team have been fielding a lot of questions lately about the team's effort and energy.
Sandberg and company insist that both are there. But the offense surely isn't. In another subpar performance with the bats, the Phillies continued their slide Saturday with a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
After moving to within 31/2 games of first place with a fifth consecutive win on June 20, the Phillies have lost 12 of their last 15. They now need a telescope to view National League East leader Atlanta. The Braves lead the Phillies by 12 games.
The offensive numbers remain gruesome. This was the 34th time the Phillies (37-50) have scored two runs or fewer. They are a season-high 13 games below .500.
They have averaged 1.8 runs per game in their last 12 losses. Regardless of effort, a team will look lethargic when failing to score with regularity.
"The energy is fine as far as guys on the bench talking about getting the job done and getting after it and things like that," Sandberg said.
Talking and executing are two different things.
"That has to carry out between the white lines, and you have to swing the bats and get hits and have baserunners to create the energy out on the field," Sandberg said. "Other than that I think the guys are playing hard."
They are just not playing well.
Rightfielder Marlon Byrd, who hit a solo home run in the ninth inning, said now is not the time for the team to put its head down.
"No giving up," Byrd said. "We're not hitting the ball like we want to, we know that. We have to keep working, keep figuring something out."
Good luck with that.
After scoring four first- inning runs in Friday's 8-2 win, the Pirates were at it again. Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is playing as if he doesn't plan to relinquish that award, smoked a two-run home run to center field in the first inning off David Buchanan.
The righthander said he threw a two-seam fastball right over the plate, which isn't the best location when facing McCutchen.
"It caught too much of the zone and that's what happened," Buchanan said. "He was sitting on it and caught a lot of the bat."
Starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, now batting .043, knocked in the third Pirates run with an RBI groundout on a slow roller to short in the second inning.
Buchanan did not allow another run in his six-inning stint.
Volquez wasn't sharp early, walking four batters and allowing a single in the first three innings, but the Phillies couldn't capitalize.
Finally, his streak of 16 scoreless innings ended when Cody Asche led off the fourth with a home run to right. Video review upheld the call that the ball cleared the railing.
After Byrd's homer to lead off the ninth, Pirates closer Mark Melancon got Asche on a groundout before striking out Domonic Brown and pinch-hitter Cesar Hernandez to end the game.
After the game, a few Phillies were watching video, looking for any edge to end this slump. Byrd said the players realize that nothing beats hard work in an effort to get themselves untracked.
"Every single day is baby steps," he said. "If it is not there, the next day you have to figure out why it wasn't there and try to fix that."
At this point, there is a lot of fixing to do for a team whose problems appear to be beyond repair.