By John Donovan
January 20, 2005

Jim Thome comes out for ground balls early and smacks balls over the fence, just like always. Quiet All-Star Bobby Abreu has nailed down another 20-homer, 20-steal season, his sixth straight one. Larry Bowa still does his best Kilauea impression every couple of weeks.

There are signs in Philadelphia that everything is as it should be with the Phillies, that everything is close to being normal. Or at least as close to normal as anything can be with the Phillies.

But something is amiss with this team -- something more than usual -- and everybody knows it. The Phillies are the most talented team in the herky, jerky National League East. Everybody knows that, too. Yet the Phillies, despite 29 days spent in first place this season, aren't playing like it.

It's time to start wondering if they ever will.

"It's in there," closer Billy Wagner said of the team's talent. "We just gotta get it out before it's too late."

The Phillies are one of the strangest, most confusing, most exasperating teams in the majors. And that's just the view from the outside. From the inside, they are a wildly inconsistent bunch that struggles when they shouldn't and seem always on the edge of something.

But what? Implosion or explosion? Taking off or going under?

Nobody knows. Even the Phillies don't have the answer to that yet.

This is a team that went into the All-Star break in first place in the NL East -- but the Phillies were just 8-18 against their main division rivals, the Braves, Marlins and Mets. This is a team that leads the NL in home runs and is fourth in runs, but has scored three runs or fewer in nearly a third of its games.

The Phillies have an MVP candidate in slugger Thome, a terrific right fielder in under-appreciated Abreu, a genuine rookie find in middle reliever Ryan Madson, a lights-out closer in Wagner, a good bullpen -- and, unquestionably, more talent than that. Yet they're only five games over .500, tied with the Braves for the NL East lead.

The Phillies should be blasting opponents. But in 30 of their 49 wins -- more than 61 percent -- they've had to come from behind.

This is a difficult team to understand, and the Phillies will be the first to admit it. They should be playing better. They know it. But they aren't. And they don't look like they're going to shake their screwy ways anytime soon.

"There's not a lot going wrong," Wagner said. "There's just not a lot going right."

The pitching, as is often the case, is where the Phillies' problems start. The Phillies came into Tuesday night's game with a 4.35 ERA, 11th in the NL, and their beat-up starting staff had a 4.82 ERA, 13th in the league. Vicente Padilla -- who manager Bowa says has the best stuff on the staff -- has been out since May and won't be back until mid August, if then. Brett Myers has been terrible. Their ace, Kevin Millwood, has an ERA approaching 5.00. Randy Wolf had only three wins in the first half.

Luckily for them, the Phillies' lineup is so strong -- first in homers, second in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging -- that it's been able to carry the pitching staff. Except, of course, when it hasn't. And that's been way too often.

Thome is hitting only .198 with runners in scoring position. Catcher Mike Lieberthal, with runners in scoring position, is hitting only .136, among the worst marks in the league. Second baseman Placido Polanco started out the season 0-for-22 in those situations. Now, he's hitting only .127. As a team, the Phillies hit .242 with runners in scoring position, 27th in baseball.

The Phillies don't move runners over well. They have little speed. They leave a ton of runners on base (they're ranked 15th in the NL in that category). And they strike out a lot, too. Thome has struck out 84 times, Abreu 67 and Pat Burrell has fanned 89 times.

"Our offense is centered around power," said Bowa. "Those guys in the middle are going to strike out. It is what it is. You gotta deal with it.

"In a lot of ways, we're lucky to be where we are."

Every game for the Phillies, especially now, seems to be painfully important. In the next eight days, they'll play the Marlins six times. The Marlins are 18-2 against the Phillies since the first part of last season, including 6-0 this year. (The two teams play seven more times in September and October.) The Phillies have six more games with the Braves and six more with the Mets before the end of the year, too.

That's a lot of time, and a lot of opportunity, to right things. But the way the Phillies have played the first 93 games, righting won't come easily.

They have talent, sure. Lots of it. But unless the starting pitching come around, unless the hitters start hitting in crucial situation, unless the Phillies start beating the teams in their own division once in a while -- and start doing all of that soon -- mere talent may not be enough.

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