Still ... we believed. Most of us believed. ESPN.com polled 50 of its baseball contributors before the season: 27 of them had the Phillies winning the NL East; 17 had them winning one of the wild cards. Only six had them missing the playoffs. We saw Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and a team that had won five consecutive division titles and was coming off a 102-win season. We didn't see a team that was going to crater.
Just a few days ago, there was still reason to believe. The Phillies were 36-40, but Utley was returning to the lineup, Howard was beginning a rehab assignment in the minors and they were just 4.5 games behind the second wild-card team. Climb back to .500 at the All-Star break and maybe they'd be in position for a second-half run.
Instead, a disastrous five games ensued. The Pirates beat them on Wednesday and Thursday and then the Marlins swept the Phillies over the weekend, culminating with a 5-2 win on Sunday.
AROUND THE SWEETSPOT NETWORK
The big news for Mets fans is the fact that Pablo Sandoval of the Giants beat out David Wright in the fan voting by 1.6 million votes. Wright had been leading in the voting up until the last couple of days. But fan voting is an important part of the All-Star Game. After all, the fans should vote for the players they want to see, since it is an exhibition game held for the fans. Wait, is it?
Disciples of Uecker
For the fifth consecutive season Ryan Braun will be playing in the All-Star Game. For the first time, though, it will not be as a starter. In his first four appearances, Braun was the leading vote-getter among NL outfielders, and was the leading vote-getter in the NL overall last season. This year, Braun held the third outfield spot in the final voting update, but fell behind San Francisco's Melky Cabrera and was unable to edge out L.A.'s Matt Kemp.
Capitol Avenue Club
The Braves signed Ben Sheets to a minor league deal. Frank Wren said Sheets could potentially be a rotation member within a few weeks. This is a bold statement for someone who hasn't been on a mound since 2010. Sheets underwent Tommy John surgery after 119 innings for the Athletics that year, and the right-hander has been on the disabled list seven times in his nine-year career.
The Phillies have played half their schedule. They're 36-45 and eight games out of the wild card -- with six teams between them and the No. 2 wild-card team.
Are the Phillies done? I asked Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley to assess the general state of the Phillies' fandom and he replied, "I would venture to say most fans are fed up with this team and want to see some return on some of the to-be free agents like Shane Victorino and, among a lesser percentage, Cole Hamels."
Here's the best way to assess the Phillies' playoff hopes. Let's assume it will take 88 wins to make the playoffs. Even that win total may be a little optimistic as it wouldn't have made the postseason as the second wild card in either of the past two seasons.
To win 88 games, the Phillies will have to go 52-29 the rest of the way -- that's a 104-win pace, or .642 winning percentage. Or better than the club played last season.
Here's another way to look at that. The Phillies have scored 347 runs and allowed 362 (they've underperformed their expected record by three wins). What kind of runs totals will they need to produce to win 52 games? Using the Pythagorean formula to estimate wins and losses, the Phillies would need to score 387 runs and allow 297 to produce an estimated .641 winning percentage.
Is there room to add 40 runs and subtract 65?
Well, let's run through some scenarios:
Offense The most surprising thing about the Phillies' first half: The offense wasn't the biggest culprit. They're fifth in the NL runs scored, on pace for 694. The Phillies scored 713 runs last season (which ranked seventh in the league). Still, there are areas for possible improvement.
1. Second base: +18 runs. This is the obvious position where the Phillies could get a huge upgrade. With rookie second baseman Freddy Galvis struggling at the plate until he was injured, Phillies second basemen created about 30 runs in the first half. Say Utley hits like he did in 2010, when he posted a .275/.387/.445 line. That's about an 18-run improvement over 300 plate appearances.
2. First base: +11 runs. The best thing to say about Ty Wigginton is that at least he wasn't awful. Overall, Phillies first basemen (10 games from Hector Luna?) hit .257/.318/.410 and created about 39 runs. Howard created about 97 runs a year ago. Cut that in half and you're talking about 50 runs over half a season. Probably not quite the improvement Phillies fans would expect, but Howard wasn't that great last year, hitting .253/.345/.488.
3. Center field: +14. Victorino has produced about 43 runs, but his triple slash line is way down from last season -- .355 to .322 in OBP and .491 to .386 in slugging. Let's say he hits in the second half like he did last season -- and manages to play every day like he did in the first half. He created 96 runs last year in 582 PAs; prorate that over 350 PAs and you get 57 runs created -- a 14-run improvement.
That's 43 runs. We needed 40 more. But remember, the Phillies are likely to see a drop in the second half from Carlos Ruiz and maybe from Juan Pierre. And keep in mind that while Utley and Howard were disabled, Victorino played every game, Hunter Pence missed one game, Rollins missed three and Ruiz missed just eight. Forty runs would be a big gain.
Defense The Phillies had one of the great pitching staffs in NL history a year ago, allowing 529 runs. They allowed 362 in the first half; amazingly, only the Rockies and Astros have allowed more in the NL. To me, that indicates the Phillies will need a huge second-half improvement in the pitching and defense department. I have them needing to decrease their first-half total by 65 runs. Where would the improvement come from?
1. Cliff Lee: -17 runs. He allowed 41 runs in 13 starts. Throw in three of Kyle Kendrick's average starts (3.5 runs per start) for the time Lee missed and we're talking about 51 runs. Give Lee 16 second-half starts at the rate he allowed runs a season ago (2.1 per start) and we're talking about a 17-run improvement.
2. Roy Halladay: -15 runs. He just threw his first bullpen session as he mends from a sore shoulder. Add Halladay's 11 starts (32 runs) and five of Kendrick's starts and we get 50 runs from this rotation spot. Let's say Halladay makes a fairly quick return after the break and makes 15 second-half starts and allows 2.3 runs per start. That's about a 15-run improvement.
3. Joe Blanton: -8 runs. He's allowed 61 runs in 16 starts. He has to do better. Cut him by half a run a start.
4. Bullpen: -25 runs. Phillies relievers are 9-13 with a 4.57 ERA, 13th in the NL. They've allowed 114 runs in 205 innings, or 5.0 runs per nine innings. Whether it's improvement from the current motley crew on the roster or the Phillies trade for some depth, the 'pen will have to do better. Cut them by 25 runs over 190 second-half innings (we're assuming a few more innings from the rotation) and we get 89 runs, or 4.2 per nine innings. This gets us to our 65 runs.
OK, that's one way for the Phillies to win 52 games in the second half. On paper, it seems reasonable.
That's on paper. Nothing outrageous needed. But that also assumes everything goes the Phillies' way, the injuries subside and some of the veterans pick it up. There's also no guarantee that 88 wins will be enough. The Phillies may need to win 54 or 55 games in the second half.
I wouldn't trade Hamels just yet. But I don't think I'd be betting on a sixth consecutive playoff appearance.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Old-Timers' Day in Yankee Stadium makes Darryl Strawberry the center of attention once again.