By FRAN ODYNIEC
Tri County Correspondent
READING-The Reading Phillies have put themselves on a slippery slope in the quest for fourth place in the Eastern League's (EL) Southern Division. It seems every time they close in on either Erie or Bowie, they slip and slide right back to the end of the line in the south's second division.
That's what they were doing last week when Erie came to town for a four-game set at FirstEnergy Stadium. Last Monday, Reading was only a half-game behind the fifth-place SeaWolves and only one game behind fourth-place Bowie (30-40). By Thursday morning, the R-Phils (28-42), in the middle of that four-game series with Erie, found themselves three games behind the now fourth-place SeaWolves (31-39) and two behind fifth-place Bowie (30-40).
Not only were the R-Phils smarting from being swept in three by Altoona before coming home to play Erie, but they were also riding a four-game losing streak.
Going into last Thursday night's game with Erie, that four-game skid had slipped into a six-game funk as the R-Phils lost the first two games of their series with the SeaWolves, 4-3 and 9-3. That left them 14 games under .500 and in undisputed possession of last place in the EL south.
"I can't put my finger on it," said a somewhat frustrated P.J. Forbes, Reading's manager of his team's inconsistency. "We've not been competitive at all. We've been swinging at pitchers' pitches and making a lot of easy outs."
"We have to find a way to put together a winning streak of more than four in a row," he continued, sitting in the dugout before the start of the series with Erie. "I see a team that should be .500 or better. This is a very veteran group. They need to step up-all of them. We have to take a look around and get something going."
It looked like something was going last Tuesday night, at least for five innings. Reading starter Allen Davis (1-5, 3.84 ERA) had the SeaWolves shut out until the sixth. He and Erie's starter Nate Bumstead (5-6, 3.78 ERA) were throwing a lot of off-speed pitches. During his 5 2/3 innings of work, Davis was between 66 and 85 m.p.h. on the radar gun while Bumstead was lighting it up between 75 and 84 m.p.h. during his six innings on the mound.
The R-Phils were ahead 3-0 going into the sixth on the merits of some timely hitting. Rightfielder Matt Padgett (.275) doubled to start the second then two outs later scored on a sacrifice fly by catcher Jason Jaramillo (.228). In the fifth, third baseman Carlos Leon (.291) led off with a triple to the right field corner then scored on a single by new second baseman Peeter Ramos (.167), just up from Clearwater where he was hitting .288. Ramos moved up to second on a wild pitch, took third on a sacrifice bunt by centerfielder Michael Bourn (.274), and scored the second run of the inning on left fielder Joey Hammond's (.247) sacrifice fly to center.
Then Erie began to solve Allen Davis's offspeed stuff in the top of the sixth. Second baseman Christopher Maples scored on a double by leftfielder Kurt Airoso. With two men on, designated hitter Jackson Melian hit a lazy high fly to right that kept carrying just out of the reach of Matt Padgett and hit on top of the fence in front of the right field swimming pool for a three-run homer. Erie's bullpen and defense kept the R-Phils off the board the rest of the game and the SeaWolves had won their second game in a row, 4-3.
The R-Phils stranded shortstop Angel Chavez (.270) at third in the sixth, and then Matt Padgett hit into a double play to end a bases-loaded threat in the seventh.
On Wednesday night the buzz around the ball park was that Philadelphia's Randy Wolf, recovering from Tommy John surgery, was to make his third rehab start. The former R-Phil didn't put much fear into the SeaWolves. Erie scored six runs on six hits (all earned) off Wolf in only 3 2/3 innings on their way to a 9-3 lacing of the R-Phils.
The R-Phils could manage only five hits off Erie starter Virgil Vasquez (4-6, 4.15 ERA) in 6 1/3 innings, although one was Michael Bourn's third home run and two were doubles by first baseman Gary Burnham (.312) who extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Erie's bullpen dashed any hope of a Reading rally by holding the R-Phils hitless over the last 2 2/3 innings, saddling Reading with its sixth loss in a row.
With the All-Star break less than a month away, Forbes is hoping that the R-Phils can pick things up for a better second half. "We've had a lot of change overs," he said, referring to the numerous roster moves that have been made since the start of the season. Forty-two players have already been on the roster since opening day. In effect, the FirstEnergy faithful have seen two different teams on the field since April 6.
But Forbes and his staff are trying to get this club to the point where it can not just build momentum but build on the momentum itself. The pieces may be starting to come together.
Defensively, Forbes said that the R-Phils are a solid club. "We're trying to be a strong as we can be," he commented. Reading has an incredibly flexible defensive capability. "We don't lose anything when a guy goes down or needs a night off," he pointed out.
It's not unusual to see Gary Burnham at first then in the outfield or to see Joey Hammond at third then in the outfield or to see Carlos Leon at third or at short or at second.
Offensively, the hitting, not yet at a consistent level, appears to be coming around. "We've pretty much settled on our 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 hitters," Forbes said. Thus far in June, the team was hitting .269 compared to .222 in April and .245 in May.
Pitching-wise, the team took a hit when Philadelphia called up staff ace Scott Mathieson to become a starter in the Phillies' rotation. The R-Phils rotation now consists of Allen Davis, Zach Segovia (3-6, 3.60 ERA, 2 complete games), Gio Gonzalez (3-7, 3.55 ERA), Daniel Haigwood (1-5, 3.55 ERA), and Tim McClaskey (1-4, 6.12 ERA). According to Reading pitching coach, Tim Filer, both Gonzalez and Haigwood, two of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, are progressing nicely.
"Gio is going in the right direction," said Filer, even though he has been somewhat inconsistent lately. "He's getting better. He has been a little loose in his delivery so we have tightened him up so that he keeps his lines toward the plate together."
Filer added that Gonzalez "is finding out guys [in the EL] don't swing at every pitch as they do at 'A' ball. It's part of his learning process."
Haigwood is also making progress, although his record of 1-5 may not show it. "In his last five outings, he's been very impressive," said Filer. According to Filer, the key to Haigwood's success lies in his command and fastball. "He's not walking as many as before," he commented.
In June, opposing batters were hitting only .177 against Haigwood vs. .262 in May. In May he had issued 14 walks in 30 2/3 innings while in June he had allowed only eight in 27 1/3 innings.
Will the R-Phils be able to turn their season around after the All-Star break?
Forbes and his staff hope so, even though the emphasis in Double A ball is player development.
"Look around this room," urged Forbes referring to the R-Phils' clubhouse. "This is a last place team? Obviously, not."
On track with the R-Phils: Centerfielder Michael Bourn was leading the EL in runs with 54; he was third in the EL in hits with 77 and third in stolen bases with 27...Infielder Carlos Leon was fourth in on-base percentage at .394...Pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood were tied for third in walks with 39...The R-Phils are 0-4 when their starters throw a complete game...Of the 42 losses by the R-Phils, 22 have either been by one-run or shutout, including three 1-0 losses...On June 19, outfielder Brian Sellier and infielder Peeter Ramos were called up to Reading from Clearwater; Second baseman Tim Moss was sent to Clearwater...On June 18, pitcher Talley Haines returned from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre...On June 17, pitcher Scott Mathieson was called up to Philadelphia; Catcher John Castellano went on the DL with a sprained wrist.