Phillies still laboring under great expectations

PHILADELPHIA – The most puzzling team in baseball has won more games over the last two seasons than the Angels.

The most puzzling team in baseball scored more runs last year than five of the eight playoff teams.

The most puzzling team in baseball has a higher payroll than the Cardinals, Cubs or Dodgers.

And here we are, nearly a month into another season, and the puzzle continues for the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that's tougher to make sense of than Donald Trump's comb-over.

They have a $95-million payroll, but they've spent just three days over .500 all season – and one of them was Opening Day.

They fired their manager (Mr. Lawrence R. Bowa) because he was too volatile – yet they've still been the most volatile team in baseball (ripping off three three-game losing streaks and two three-game winning streaks in their first 19 games).

They've been talking since February about how much fun they're having, and how relaxed they are, under their upbeat new manager (Charlie Manuel), pitching coach (Rich Dubee) and hitting coach (Milt Thompson). Yet they're hitting .232 with runners in scoring position. They have the lowest average in baseball in the late innings of close games (.200). And their pitching staff has a 7.93 ERA with runners on base.

So they might be a happier bunch of people. But as they sit at the bottom of the NL East in the final week of April, they sure look a lot like the same mysterious baseball team they've been for the last two-plus seasons.

"Maybe," one scout who has watched them this April said with a laugh, "they're happy being the same."

Well, maybe. But this is a franchise that can't afford another year of that same old same old. Not unless it wants to turn off its fan base irreparably, get its general manager into some serious employment jeopardy and spend another summer listening to those obnoxious E-A-G-L-E-S chants welling up out of the box seats.

There may not be the same kind of pressure on the Phillies this year that there was last year, when they were picked to win the NL East by everyone except Bobby Cox. But their mission, in reality, hasn't changed.

This team has to win. Now.

"I hope these guys feel a sense of urgency, because we're not in a development situation," said GM Ed Wade a couple of weeks ago. "This is a team designed to win."

Of course, it was designed to win last year, too. Not to mention the year before that. But as Bullwinkle Moose used to say: This time for sure.

"You've just got to look at the players we have here – the Jim Thomes, the Bobby Abreus, myself," said catcher Mike Lieberthal, one of five Phillies regulars on the other side of 30. "We're not going to be around forever. It's not like we have a young team. It's not like the payroll is low. So now's the time to win. We've got a lot of money out on that field."

But what these men have to wonder – what everyone has to wonder – is if the Phillies already have blown the best opportunity they might ever have to boot the Braves out of the NL East penthouse.

That window was as wide open as Terrell Owens last year – when Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez and Derrek Lee were all bailing OUT of the non-Philadelphia portion of the division.

Just as the NFC was practically begging the Eagles to win it last fall, the NL East was issuing an open invitation to the Phillies to win it last April – when the arrival of Billy Wagner, Citizens Bank Park and actual paying customers all converged on South Philadelphia at once.

But the Phillies spent the next six months playing like a team that was more interested in getting its manager canned than it was in winning. So while it eventually did accomplish that quest – it was too late to salvage a lost season.

And now, a season later, the Phillies won't get a mulligan – not in a division which has imported Tim Hudson, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado over the winter.

So a sense of wasted opportunity hangs over this franchise. And even the men in uniform know it.

"Last year," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, "was the first year since I've been here where, when it was over, I said, 'Man, we screwed up.' "

There is no bigger over-simplification in baseball than the convenient theory that what happened to the 2004 Phillies was all about the manager and pitching coach (Joe Kerrigan). The fact is, this team had trouble handling a bunch of issues: The ballpark. The injuries. And, especially, the expectations loaded on all their shoulders.

"It was just the fact that we were expected to win – something that, in Phillies baseball, there hasn't been a lot of," Rollins said. "We were the ones getting all the write-ups, all the hype ... and that was something new to this team."

What the Phillies should have done, Rollins said, was feed off those expectations – "take them to heart and say, 'Yeah, we ARE that team.' " But that definitely wasn't what they did.

They staggered off to a 1-6 start, turned it around long enough to take a three-game lead in the division a week before the All-Star break and then kicked the season away by losing 25 of their next 40 – capped by a suicidal 1-9 homestand.

Larry Bowa wasn't the reason all that happened. But he was far from an innocent bystander.

His team had heard enough, seen enough and lived through enough of him by August. But the GM and the team president (Dave Montgomery) let Bowa keep on managing anyway – until he finally quit with two days left until the finish line, when it became apparent, even to him, that he was going to get fired.

So 2004 will go down as more than just a disappointing season. It was a joyless, lifeless disaster of a season – one that drove away fans, confused a lot of experts and produced more questions than answers about whether this team was good enough to win.

Given all that, it's almost amazing to look back now and see that the 2004 Phillies actually won 86 games, despite all those injuries, all that underachievement, all that misery.

"Eighty-six wins," said pitcher Randy Wolf. "It didn't feel like it."

Well, it's hard to believe they won that many until you look at their stats. Then it gets hard to believe they didn't win a lot MORE.

This was a team that obliterated the rest of the division in every major offensive category, scoring 156 more runs than the Mets and 122 more than the Marlins. It caught the ball. It had an excellent bullpen, except for a period when Wagner and unhittable rookie Ryan Madson went down at the same time in late July. It outscored its opponents by 59 runs – a better run differential than the A's or Marlins.

Teams like that are supposed to head for the playoffs. This team just headed off to find a new manager who would allow virtually the same cast of players to relax, enjoy playing and magically find a way to get the most out of their talent.

The guy they chose (Manuel) was a guy they could have turned to in July or August, since he was already on the payroll as a special advisor to Wade. And that could have allowed them to find out, once and for all, if Bowa was the problem or just an excuse.

But that isn't how the brass handled it. So Manuel and his new coaching staff spent all spring laying a groundwork of positivity and affability. His players have been grateful for every ounce of both.

So the failure of that new, upbeat climate to translate into wins is an ominous development – especially for a franchise that, according to USA Today, has more money committed to its current nucleus of players beyond this year ($181 million) than any team except the Yankees.

A 9-12 start isn't what anyone had in mind. But the manager has maintained his patience. And that's been a weird phenomenon for a collection of players who barely knew what patience looked like.

Had last year's team staggered through three different three-game losing streaks this early, "there would have been a lot of grouchy faces," Lieberthal said. But Manuel is a man who doesn't believe in "worrying about the day-to-day wins and losses." He preaches relaxation, happiness, confidence.

His predecessor's idea of fun was 162-0. Manuel, on the other hand, says: "Playing the game right means enjoying the game, being happy. ... When you put that 'you-have-to' on a player, they fail."

"The biggest thing I've noticed," Lieberthal said, "is in the dugout, when things go wrong – say, if you have a bad at-bat – there's still always somebody there to pick you up. Or even if I just did nothing more [behind the plate] than catch five pitches for three outs, I'll come back and hear, 'Attaway, Lieby,' from all the coaches."

Manuel and Dubee have given Lieberthal and the pitchers more freedom than they had under Bowa and Kerrigan – so "there's really been no second-guessing," Lieberthal said. "I'm able to go to the mound more, where before, I was reluctant. I'd just wait for the pitching coach. Now I can enjoy the game a lot more when I'm behind the plate."

But fun and freedom are swell only if, at some point, they translate into winning. And so far, that's one concept that has been lost in translation.

The idea behind hiring Manuel was to establish an atmosphere conducive to success. And while it's not too late for this team to get on a roll – particularly if Thome ever gets hot – the fact is that only one team in franchise history has made the postseason after having a losing record in its first 20 games (the 1977 Phillies, who matched this team at 9-11).

Nevertheless, this team still has its believers. Three different GMs predicted this spring that the Phillies would win their division. Astros manager Phil Garner called them the team with the best chance to be "this year's Cardinals." Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver even ranked them as the fifth-best team in baseball.

So obviously, lack of talent isn't the problem. But do the offensive pieces fit? Is the starting pitching good enough or deep enough? Is the age of this bullpen starting to show up all at once?

These are questions the Phillies need to sort out in the next few months. They committed millions of bucks to these players before this group had ever won anything. Now it's time for those players to demonstrate they're as good as they think they are.

Thome said this spring that "people haven't seen the real Phillies." Rollins has compared this club to the '93 Phillies – because "nobody thinks we can win, but we know we're good." Manuel says: "I took this job because I expect us to win. And if we play the game the way we're capable of playing, we're GOING to win."

But after all those years of blaming their ex-manager for their problems, now there's no one left for these players to point fingers at but themselves. They continue to talk the talk. But sooner or later, it comes time to do it.

"The onus is on these players," said assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. "It's time they need to produce to win and play to win. And it's really their responsibility to do that now."

If they at least hang in the race, Wade has big chips (Placido Polanco and minor-league thumper Ryan Howard) to use to make the kind of pre-deadline deal he has taken so much heat for not making in the past.

But if they don't, they'll have a hard time retooling a lineup in which everyone but center fielder Kenny Lofton is either signed, or under control, next year – almost all of them attached to very large dollar signs.

And so, for the most puzzling team in baseball, their defining moment has arrived. Basically, it's win now – or find themselves in a pit even darker and deeper than this one.

"I thought we had a great opportunity last year, and we didn't take advantage of it," Wade said. "But that doesn't mean the door is closed and locked now. ... Like I've said all winter, there's only one way to prove this team is capable of winning a championship – go do it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.