Lost Swagger Has Phils Searching For Answers

These Phillies sure are confounding. By mid-May, the Phillies had languished for weeks in the cellar and the season seemed in critical condition. But just when the fans had given them up for dead, the Phillies rose up and became unstoppable, winning 15 of the next 17. Only a ten-game Washington winning streak held the Phillies out of first place. Then, just when it seemed they had put it all together, it all came unraveling apart.

Since the 12-1 homestand, the Phillies are 3-9, losers of four straight series. Punch-drunk and reeling from a humiliating sweep at the hands of the World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Phillies have to bounce back and show some spark in a pride fight over last place against the New York Mets. After the Mets looms a showdown with the surging Atlanta Braves. If the Phillies can't beat the teams in their own division, they have no chance of making the postseason.

Are the Phillies going to stop pressing and start playing with a little pride or stumble back into the basement? This series against the Mets is a crucial one. Last week the Mets came into Citizens Bank Park in last place and four and a half games behind the second place Phillies. The Mets took two of three to close the gap and now amazingly have a chance to knock the Phillies back to the NL East floor.

It all happened so fast.

Swagger is a sure sign of confidence and the Phillies had it in abundance in the first half of June. Since then, they lost their focus and swagger. Collectively pressing, the team is sinking like a stone. A couple of Phillies stand out as especially concerning.

Brett Myers' demeanor has changed. Instead of attacking the strike zone, he's nibbling and trying to be too fine. He's battling umpires instead of hitters. When he runs in the hole, he's grooving pitches. Lately, he's struggled to keep his cool on the mound. Myers was the victim of a lot of bad breaks when he was pitching well and his record never reflected his dominance. He managed for a while to stay positive, but now things seem to be building up on him mentally. When he loses focus he leaves his fastball up. It will be important for him to keep his cool in his next start, win or lose, because you can't control the breaks but you can control yourself. Jon Lieber is struggling, too, but he does a much better job staying focused. This is the primary reason that Lieber is the Phillies ace, since his stuff isn't nearly as nasty as Myers. No doubt Myers will find himself again, the only question is when.

Pat Burrell has looked mostly lost over the past two weeks until his last two at bats on Sunday. Hopefully those two booming hits are a sign of things to come, because if Pat cannot stay out of free-fall at the plate then the Phillies will free-fall with him. He sometimes presses so hard that he takes himself out of the game. At times it looks as if he's trying to stare a hole through the bat before he steps into the box. Pat needs to just stand up there and take his good cuts. The main thing is, he has to lay off anything that makes him lunge. He seems to be letting the pitcher dictate the swing he takes instead of the other way around. Pat tends to lose the guessing game at the plate, taking fat pitches and swinging at bad ones. Instead of guessing, Burrell should simply sit dead red and lay off anything that bends early in the count. It's difficult to strike out a hitter who doesn't go fishing. And if Pat can mix in a walk here and there he'll start to see more fastballs. On balance, Pat has had an excellent season so far. If he can recall his early season approach at the plate, he'll be fine.

The up and down Phillies have to play with more confidence. Besides Myers and Burrell, Ugueth Urbina must turn things around from the pen. Jim Thome needs to duck into the nearest phone booth to put on his suit and cape. Jimmy Rollins has to lead the way with a consistent approach at the plate. Kenny Lofton must stay healthy. Jon Lieber needs to mix in a few quality starts. The front office must find a way to give the team a boost before the trading deadline at the end of July. A front-line starting pitcher is what they really need. They might already have one in Ryan Madson, if only they would give him a try. Four or five Madson starts in July would give the front office time to see if he works as a starter before the trading deadline. This way they could make a more informed decision in any deal they make.

The Phillies aren't out of it yet, but the further they slip out of contention, the more they will have think about next year with any trades they make. The sooner they come to grips with the holes in the starting pitching, the better.

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