Posted July 12, 2012 on AP on Fox
For nearly three months, the battle cry surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies was this: Just wait until Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are back. Well, they're here and the Phillies can't win with them. They've lost 10 of 11 since Utley, the five-time All-Star second baseman, made his season debut on June 27. They lost three straight games after Howard, the former NL MVP, returned last weekend. The five-time defending NL East champions limped into the All-Star break at 37-50 after setting a franchise-record with 102 wins last year. They're on pace to become the first team in major league history to lose 90 games the season after winning 100. When the second half resumes Friday, the Phillies will face a monumental challenge if they are to extend their postseason streak to six years. They are 14 games behind first-place Washington and trail Atlanta by 10 games for the second wild-card spot. After having the best record in the majors in each of the last two seasons, the Phillies have the fifth-worst mark in the NL this year. Manager Charlie Manuel has run out of explanations. ''The way we play, it's not good enough to win and we don't win because we don't play good enough,'' Manuel said before the All-Star break. ''We have trouble playing the games completely. We get outplayed and that's what happens.'' Injuries have clearly been a major part of the problem for the Phillies. They went nearly three months without their Nos. 3-4 hitters in the lineup, and ace Roy Halladay hasn't pitched since May. Despite their record since Utley and Howard returned, missing the two sluggers hurt the offense. The Phillies were 9-16 in one-run games that Howard and Utley didn't start. Flip that around and the Phillies would be 44-43 and right in the mix. Losing Halladay forced Kyle Kendrick to stay in the rotation. He's 2-8, including 1-4 since Halladay went down. But the Phillies can't blame their disastrous first half on injuries alone. Several key players have underperformed. Cliff Lee didn't get his first win until July 4. Shane Victorino is hitting .245. Jimmy Rollins is at .256. Hunter Pence, despite solid overall numbers, has a .226 average with runners in scoring position. The bullpen, except for All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon, has been abysmal. The other relievers combined are 6-12 with a 5.01 ERA. Add in sloppy defense, mental lapses, baserunning miscues, and poor execution of fundamentals. That's why the Phillies are in unfamiliar territory, looking up at the rest of the division in the standings. ''We were always in the hunt so we hardly never talked about winning or losing,'' Manuel said. ''Nobody ever talked about it because we always felt like we were going to win. You can definitely sense that that isn't there no more.'' The first three weeks after the break will be a critical time for the franchise. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has to decide whether the Phillies will be buyers or sellers before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. All-Star lefty Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, and Victorino will be free agents after the season, so both players will be mentioned heavily in trade rumors. The Phillies want Hamels back and he prefers to stay here. Hamels has even said he'd be open to coming back if he's traded. Lee returned to the Phillies a year after he was traded away, so it's not unusual around here. Victorino is another story. It's unlikely the Phillies could fit the two-time All-Star center fielder in their budget. They already have the highest payroll in the NL and need that money to re-sign Hamels. Trading Victorino might be a way for the Phillies to get bullpen help, so his days in Philadelphia could be winding down. Pitcher Joe Blanton and third baseman Placido Polanco are other potential free agents who could be dealt to contending teams. ''We have to stay positive,'' Blanton said. ''Guys are putting a lot of effort into this every day.'' If the Phillies somehow make a run after the break, Amaro could go in an opposite direction. He's shown a willingness to make blockbuster deals at the trade deadline, acquiring Lee in 2009, Roy Oswalt in 2010 and Pence last year. For inspiration, the Phillies need only to look to last year's St. Louis Cardinals. They were 10 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot on Aug. 25, got in and beat the Phillies in the divisional round on their way to winning the World Series. ''You can't explain baseball,'' Pence said. ''Weird things happen. We've all seen collapses and we've seen comebacks, so we have to believe that is the case and keep coming every day. We all made the decision that we want to win and we're not going to stop because we're facing this adversity.'' --- Rob Maaddi can be reached at

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