Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, the day after the Phillies got just three hits in a loss to the Giants, and three days after they were one-hit by the Giants, Gabe Kapler offered that his team’s hitters that day would alter their approach at the plate.
“We’re going into the game with the approach of we’re not providing much information today,” Kapler said. “We’re just going to be athletes. We’re going to go out there and let our natural athleticism take over. We know that when we’re loose and relaxed, we produce our best swings, so it’s about being easy. With runners in scoring position, or in other big situations, nobody is trying to take anyone deep. Simple approach to take the pressure off.”
Loose. Relaxed. Clear minded. Tension free.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Charlie Manuel talk hitting, you’ve heard all of these buzz words.
Now, you’re going to be hearing more of them.
And so are Phillies hitters.
The 75-year-old batting cage rat is the Phillies new hitting coach. The team turned to him Tuesday in a desperate attempt to save a season of high expectations, a desperate attempt to end a seven-year playoff drought. The Phillies have not played postseason ball since Manuel’s 102-win 2011 team had a bad week at the worst possible time and was eliminated in the division series. Back then Manuel was in the midst of the most successful run ever enjoyed by a Phillies skipper — five division titles, two National League pennants and a World Series title. His legacy as the most successful skipper in Phillies history is secure. Now, he’s trying to do the organization a solid by helping it get to a place it hasn’t gotten to since he was in charge.
Manuel is not leaving his role as a front office adviser to run the ballclub. That’s Gabe Kapler’s job, but how long it remains Gabe Kapler’s job — i.e., will he return next season? — could come down to how successful Manuel is at waking up this slumbering offense over the final 43 games of the season. (It would help if Big Chuck could find three starting pitchers who can go seven innings, but that’s not his job and it’s too late for that anyway. At least for now. But next season — hoo boy.)
Slumbering is a fitting word to describe the Phillies’ offense. Pressing might be a better word. Certainly it seems as if these guys are putting way too much pressure on themselves and that’s no way to hit.
Rhys Hoskins, who takes seriously his role as a team leader, is coming off a 2-for-24 road trip. He has one RBI this month. He wants to be a great Phillie, on and off the field. There are nights when you can almost see him turning the bat handle into saw dust, trying to do too much, trying to please too many.
Bryce Harper has looked that way all season as he tries to hit 800-foot home runs when paint scrapers, or line drives in the gap, will do.
J.T. Realmuto has also looked that way all season as he plays to show a team and a city he was worth a high price in prospects.
This is all right in Manuel’s wheelhouse. Pressing hitters. Hitters who lose their natural reactive skill because they think too much. Hitters lacking confidence.
This is Manuel’s specialty. He’s not going to come in and rip apart swings. He’s going to come in and preach what he always has — get a good ball to hit, catch it out front, be ready to hit, be aggressive in the zone. He’s going to tell his hitters that home runs are nice, that home runs are great — no one loves them more than Chuck — but home runs are things that happen when you get a good ball to hit, execute a good swing and catch the ball out front. Manuel will keep it simple for these guys — just like Kapler was saying Sunday in San Francisco when the heat was getting turned up.
Manuel’s simple approach is embodied in something he likes to say: If you’re not hitting .300, you have a problem. He knows that not everybody is capable of hitting .300. But that should be the goal of every hitter. And if you’re strong and have some pop and catch that good ball to hit well, that well-struck fly ball just might end up over the fence for a home run. And when you hit that home run, or get that runner home, you’ll hear it from Manuel in a reassuring tone that will build confidence. That’s another Manuel strength — building confidence, and confidence is baseball’s magic potion.
Manuel has some work to do. The Phillies offense has been inconsistent all season. Since the All-Star break, the offense has been particularly bad. Entering Tuesday, it ranked 27th in the majors in runs, 27th in batting average, 26th in OPS and 28th in extra-base hits since the break.
And it ranked 28th in the majors with a .211 batting average with runners in scoring position since the break.
That’s a sign of a pressing team.
Charlie Manuel has always said a hitter needs to be tension-free and confident to succeed.
He’s coming in to work on those intangibles.
And if he can work his magic, the results should be better and maybe, just maybe, the Phillies can live to breathe a little October air for the first time since he was skipper.
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