- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If you think the Philadelphia Phillies' offensive travails are tough to watch on Fox between trips to the bathroom and the refrigerator, just imagine how exasperating the parade of despair must seem from the third base dugout at Tropicana Field.
During a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night, Philadelphia hitting coach Milt Thompson stood near the rail and watched hitter after hitter flail in big spots. When the Phillies weren't taking strikes, they were swinging at balls -- or striking out with runners on base and less than two outs. They're turning that feat into an art form.
The word "pressing" was thrown around a lot in the clubhouse after the game. Or as manager Charlie Manuel observed, it might have been a case of simply "trying too hard."
The end result: One hit in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
Throw in an 0-for-13 performance in the series opener Wednesday, and the Phils are a mind-boggling 1-for-28 with men in scoring position against Tampa Bay pitching. No wonder, as Thompson observes, it might be time for a step back and a deep breath as the series shifts to Citizen's Bank Park this weekend.
"For me, you've got to use the center of the field," Thompson said. "Just try to hit a line drive up the middle of the field or from gap to gap.
"You're on the biggest stage, and you have to slow the game down and relax. To simplify it, get a good ball to hit and don't miss it."
At the moment, the Phillies are about as far as you can get from simplicity. Their at-bats are progressing at NASCAR speed, and each opposing pitcher is a Daisuke Matsuzaka-caliber escape artist.
When the Series began, the conventional wisdom was that the Phillies' timing at the plate might be off because of their weeklong absence from games. Chase Utley appeared to negate that theory with a two-run homer off Scott Kazmir in the first inning of Game 1. But ever since, the Phils have been a portrait of bat-grinding futility. They have to feel fortunate to leave Florida even in the Series.
Two of the most notable offenders: Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who's hitless in 10 at-bats, and left fielder Pat Burrell, who is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts and has yet to hit the ball out of the infield in two games.
"Half of it is their pitchers making good pitches when there are two strikes," Rollins said. "The other half is us not doing it when we are ahead in the count. The bottom line is, we have to do a better job."
Then there's first baseman Ryan Howard, who busted out (somewhat) with a double and a single, but left Tropicana Field with this notable distinction: He came to the plate four times with runners in scoring position in the first two games of the Series, and struck out all four times.
"It's not like I go up there and say, 'Hey, there's a runner in scoring position -- I think I'll strike out right now,'" Howard said. "It's part of the game, and it happens. Look at it how you want to look at it."
After the Phillies won the opener 3-2 behind Cole Hamels on Wednesday, the Tampa Bay players liberally doled out the praise. They credited the Phils for running the bases aggressively and playing solid defense and fundamentally sound ball at every turn.
Check that. In Game 2, Jayson Werth bobbled a ball in right field, Ruiz made an errant pickoff throw and Werth got doubled off first base when he strayed too far from the bag on an Utley liner to right.
The Phillies wasted a decent effort from starting pitcher Brett Myers and didn't get any breaks from home plate umpire Kerwin Danley. In the second inning, Myers appeared to have Rocco Baldelli struck out on an attempted check swing. But after appearing to ring up Baldelli, Danley deferred to first base ump Fieldin Culbreth -- who awarded the Rays' right fielder first base on ball four. The call eventually led to a run for the Rays.
The Phillies couldn't even get a hit-by-pitch right. In the ninth inning, a David Price fastball clearly ticked Rollins' jersey. But Danley told Rollins he couldn't hear the ball hit cloth because of the crowd noise, and Rollins eventually popped out to take some starch out of a potential Phillies rally.
For what it's worth, the Phillies were generally stand-up guys in assessing their difficulties at the plate. Nobody is using the layoff as an excuse. Maybe rust was a factor in the opener, but certainly not in the second game.
"We're facing the best of the best right now," said Greg Dobbs, who filled the DH spot Thursday. "The Rays are here for a reason -- because they have really good pitching. While it would be nice to have 12-14 hits every game and drive in 10 of 12 runners on base and win the game 10-2, it's not always gonna work out that way."
Rollins, in particular, is capable of setting a different tone Saturday, when the Phillies return home before a sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park. It'll be the first World Series game in Philadelphia in 15 years -- since Curt Schilling was more readily identifiable with a white towel than a bloody sock -- and maybe that's the boost the offense needs.
"It's gonna be crazy," Rollins said. "It's gonna be like an Eagles game. I've been to some Eagles games, and they can be very loud."
If the Phillies plan to generate any momentum for Games 4 and 5, they might want to find a cure for this allergy to clutch hitting. Time isn't exactly on their side.
After going 1-for-28 with runners in scoring position at Tampa Bay, the Phillies have to feel fortunate to be headed home with the series tied at one game apiece.