Phillies' offense has room for improvement

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">Philadelphia Phillies&#39; Ryan Howard is reflected in the World Series trophy after Game 5 of the baseball World Series in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008. The Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 to win the series. &#40;AP Photo&#47;David J. Phillip&#41;</span></div>
February 23, 2009 5:12:26 PM PST
Charlie Manuel earned his reputation in baseball as a hitting coach, so it's no wonder the Philadelphia manager takes it personally when his offense struggles. Despite a star-studded lineup that featured Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, the Phillies were inconsistent at the plate last year. They won the World Series because they had strong pitching, particularly an outstanding bullpen led by perfect closer Brad Lidge.

Injuries and prolonged slumps contributed to the team's hitting problems. The Phillies had their lowest batting average (.255) since 2000 and scored their fewest runs (799) since 2003.

"I know we can improve on our batting average," Manuel said Monday. "We didn't have a .300 hitter last year and that ticks me off because I know we have five or six guys capable of hitting .300, maybe more. It doesn't mean I'm mad at them. It's just something I know we can improve on."

Shane Victorino led the Phillies with a .293 average and Utley was right behind at .292, down from .332 in 2007. Utley was bothered by a hip injury most of the season, however. That's mainly why his average dropped to .279 over the last five months after he hit .352 in April.

"I don't feel like I had the best year I've had," Utley said. "It's something we need to improve, continue to work on because teams will be coming after us."

Rollins batted .277 after hitting a career-best .296 in '07. Howard batted a career-low .251. He hit .316 when he was NL MVP in '06. Jayson Werth (.273), Burrell (.250), Pedro Feliz (.249) and Carlos Ruiz (.219) rounded out the regulars.

"I kind of take it personal because I pull for every one of them to be the best hitter in baseball and I know we got five or six guys capable of hitting .300," Manuel said. "We're definitely planning on improving our hitting."

All the starters are back except for Burrell. Raul Ibanez replaces him, giving the Phillies a hitter who isn't streaky. Ibanez has a .286 career average with a high of .304 in '04 and eight straight seasons of batting at least .280.

Like Utley and Howard, Ibanez bats left-handed, making the middle of the lineup potentially susceptible to lefties. That doesn't seem to matter to Manuel or the hitters.

"When you think about it, there's a majority of right-handed pitchers in the league and I think that'll work to his advantage a little bit and that'll work to our advantage," Utley said. "I think a little bit is blown out of proportion. I think we have a balanced team. We have two switch-hitters, three left-handed bats and three right-handed hitters. To me, that's as balanced as you can get."

Besides Utley, Rollins also played hurt last year. He sprained his ankle in early April and landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. When he returned, he wasn't the same dynamic player who was the NL MVP a year earlier. Rollins' power numbers dipped along with his average. He had 11 homers and 59 RBIs, down from 30 and 94.

"The ankle, really, it probably didn't stop bothering me until December," Rollins said. "Some days it felt good. Some days, I don't know, I was still searching. It feels good now."

After scoring 20 runs against St. Louis in mid-June, the Phillies were on pace to total almost 900 runs. But they averaged 4.6 runs per game over the last 93 games after averaging 5.5 through the first 69. Interleague play was real tough on Philadelphia. The Phillies went 4-11 and scored 57 runs (3.8 per game) against the AL.

"You guys put a black cloud on us is what you did when you said this team is on course to score 1,000 runs," Manuel said. "We got some big hits down the stretch. I look at us as a .270-.280 hitting team. If we do that, I see us at the top of the National League." Notes: LHP Cole Hamels was back at camp after missing two days to tend to a family matter. Pitching coach Rich Dubee said Hamels might see his first action in an exhibition game March 4. "We're flexible," he said. Hamels pitched more than 260 innings last year, including the postseason, so the Phillies are in no rush to use him this spring.

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