POWERLESS TO STOP THE SLIDE?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Philadelphia -- It was as if someone turned off a light switch. One minute, the Philadelphia Phillies were on top of the baseball world. The next, they were floundering so badly that the Atlanta Braves were able to engineer a nine-game turnaround in less than two weeks.

"Why? . . . I wish I knew," said pitching ace Curt Schilling. "We just stopped playing good baseball and started playing some good teams at a time when we weren't playing well."

The result was a frustrating 3-15 run that knocked the Phillies off the top of the National League East and quickly dropped them six games behind the surging Braves. The turnaround was so sudden -- and so demoralizing -- that Phillies fans already are venting their frustration on the home team.

Catcher Darren Daulton, one of the most popular players on the club, was booed heavily in the first game after the All-Star break. True, he had caused a local furor when he and teammate Lenny Dykstra failed to show up for the All-Star workout Monday in Arlington, Texas, but it seems unlikely that he would have felt the wrath of the fans if he weren't one of the most prominent underachievers in a Phillies offense that has turned sour at just the wrong time.

The Phillies still pitch consistently. They continue to get solid performances from rookies Michael Mimbs and Tyler Green. But they have lost so many low-scoring games that good pitching isn't enough. This is a club in full retreat, and there is little time to recover before the pitching-rich Braves are out of reach.

Local fans must be wondering what hit them. This is the same club that went 37-18 to run away from the pack in May and early June, but the offensive chemistry that made the Phillies so exciting -- particularly in the late innings -- has been replaced by a midsummer malaise that has manager Jim Fregosi bothered and bewildered.

"We just haven't hit," Fregosi said. "That [an extended offensive slump] happens to everybody at some point, but we've been in it for a while now. I've really been surprised by our lack of power. I thought this team would hit a few home runs."

Very few, as it turned out. Daulton closed out the first half with six. Leadoff hitter Dykstra, who used to be known for his combination of on-base average and surprising pop, hasn't hit a home run since May 1994. The Phillies have hit just 41 in the first 73 games of 1995, which ranks them last in the majors. Nobody else has fewer than 50.

The Braves, meanwhile, are tied for 26th in the majors in team batting average, but are scoring more runs than the Phillies, who rank in the upper half of the National League in batting average. That, combined with Atlanta's apparent pitching edge, will make it difficult for Philadelphia to get back to the top of the standings.

"The Braves have two things going for them," said Phillies newcomer Andy Van Slyke. "Obvi- ously, they have their four big starters, but they also have an offense that can get three hits and win, 3-2 -- because they can hit the three-run homer. They've got [Fred] McGriff and [Ryan] Klesko and the rookie [Chipper Jones], as well as a couple of other guys. Their offense may shut down, but they can still win. We're the kind of club that gets a hit or walk and has to move the guy over."

The Phillies were making that work a month ago. Fregosi proclaimed that the chemistry of the club was the best of any team he had managed. The Vet was a happy place, and the Braves, bless their hearts, were cooperating with a tepid start.

Daulton and Co. weren't hitting for a lot of power, but it didn't really matter. The club was winning and the home runs would come, or so everybody thought. So far, the heart of the lineup -- Daulton, Charlie Hayes and Dave Hollins -- has a total of 19 homers. By comparison, the three top run-producers for each of the three NL division leaders combined to finish the first half with more home runs than the entire Phillies roster.

"It's been a power shortage all year," said general manager Lee Thomas. "We really haven't hit as a team. Just three or four guys have carried the offensive load. It's the longest offensive slumber by a group of good hitters that I can remember."

Fregosi can only hope that the second-half payback will be enough to propel the team into the postseason.

"I don't think there is any question that these guys can hit," Fregosi said. "It's my experience that people with proven track records usually get somewhere close to what they've done in the past. Hopefully, we will do that. It's never easy to deal with when you're losing, but it's not like those guys are a bunch of rookies who haven't done anything before. I expect them to hit."

If, in fact, the chemistry of the club is as good as Fregosi believed it was a few weeks ago, the Phillies may be able to ride out the storm, provided the Braves don't turn into the NL version of the Cleveland Indians.

"I know this is a very generic answer, but I've played for a lot of teams and I've never gone through a whole season when a team did not hit one big roadblock," said outfielder Dave Gallagher, one of the few Phillies who has continued to swing the bat very well. "Early in the season, the Braves weren't playing at the top of their game, and the Cincinnati Reds started out 1-9. Look where they are now. We just happen to be having our bad streak now.

"The last two weeks, we've really hit the skids. If it's going to be a good season, that has to be temporary. It's never pleasant, but everybody goes through it. That's part of it."

The club can take solace in the track records of some of its slumping hitters, but if the Phillies expect things to even out in the second half, they also may have to consider the possibility that the pitching will, too. Green, at 8-5 with a 3.06 ERA, is a Rookie of the Year candidate (though it seems unlikely that anyone will upstage the Los Angeles Dodgers' Hideo Nomo) and Mimbs had a surprisingly successful first half after being selected in the Rule V draft in December. They do not have lengthy track records, so their success in the second half cannot be taken for granted.

The Phillies do have one big thing going for them. Regardless of what happens in Atlanta, their great start has left them in excellent position to compete for a wild-card playoff berth if they are unable to return to the top of the NL East standings. But the strong start may have created an atmosphere where anything but a division title would be a letdown for Phillies fans.

"We raised a lot of expectations getting up where we were," Schilling said. "Those expectations are still there, and we're not."

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