Tuesday night, they were fine. The starting pitching, courtesy of Cole Hamels, was strong, the defense was solid, there was more than enough timely hitting. It all added up to a 7-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies. Maybe this was merely a soft spot in the schedule. But maybe it was the beginning of something better.
The Phillies did not look like a last-place team, although the NL East standings argue against that view. In any case, the Phillies are in no position to take anything or anybody for granted. Before the game, it was suggested to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel that Tuesday night offered a really favorable matchup.
The Rockies, after all, would be without their two best players -- Troy Tulowitzki is on the disabled list and Carlos Gonzalez is day to day with a strained knee. The Phils were starting the accomplished Hamels, while the Rockies were starting Josh Outman, who began the year in the bullpen and is being converted to a starter on the fly. Plus, the Rockies had the worst team ERA in the Major Leagues coming into the contest.
Manuel acknowledged all of this as true. But all of this didn't make any difference to Manuel. "At the same time, we still have to go play the game, we still have to beat them, and we have to outplay them," he said. "That's what the game is all about."
After five straight division titles, two NL pennants and one World Series championship, the Phillies' performance to date in 2012 has been uncomfortably atypical. The Phillies, as a regular-season operation, had done nothing but ascend over the last five years. From 2007 through 2011 their victory totals were 89, 92, 93, 97 and 102. What were they doing Tuesday morning at 31-37, in fifth place, nine games off the pace in the NL East?
The easy answer is that they're playing without some of the most prominent people in the game, such as Chase Utley (knee), Ryan Howard (torn left Achilles' tendon), and Roy Halladay (right latissimus dorsi strain). Playing at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, the absence of two genuine middle-of-the-order run producers like Utley and Howard is only magnified.
"We were counting on what we had being on the field," Manuel said. "We weren't planning on Chase not being able to play. We thought Howard would be back sooner. You put those guys in our lineup and our lineup changes. They fill the third and fourth holes. When you guys [reporters] used to ask me all the time why I hit Utley third and Howard fourth, maybe you know now. Maybe you got the answer you were looking for."
Those two injuries and the absence of Halladay, a Cy Young Award winner in both leagues, are legitimate reasons for a decline in performance. But the discouraging development for the Phillies this season is that they have had shortcomings in all portions of the game.
"Mostly, you've got to play better in the game," Manuel said. "You've got to outplay the other team, that's bottom line when you think about it. We lose games on offense, defense, pitching, in all phases of the game, we lose games. It's definitely not just one thing that you can correct. We've got to correct everything on the field."
Manuel touched on another issue that wouldn't be considered by the casual fan.
"We have a lot of guys on our team that are new, that we brought over here to be part-time players," Manuel said. "We have guys on our team from the Minor Leagues. Let me tell you something, they look and they see Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and Halladay, and they know those guys are coming back. And they want to stay on the team. And staying on the team is probably more important for them now than going out and performing and winning the game. They want to do something good.
"And they might be tense. That's where the pressure comes in. They might tense up or something. If you want to know the truth, that's the way it goes. They're looking for an identity so that they can fit on our team and stay. And that can become a problem."
The Phillies cannot be asked to win 102 games while missing key personnel. But before Tuesday night's game, they had lost 12 of their last 15. No excuses can cover that sort of thing.
"I thought if we could play .500 or a little over until we got our guys, that would be all right," Manuel said. "I would never think that we would tell our players that because we want to win every night. But we've fallen back some. But we've got to keep going.
"We have to improve if we want to win games. We have to play much better baseball. Can we? I've seen it done before, but we've got to prove that we can do it."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.