Series Preview: Mets vs. Phillies

After nearly sweeping the down-trending Dodgers in Los Angeles, the Mets move on to face another club spinning out of control — the Philadelphia Phillies — for a three-game set.

Could Mets fans be any happier witnessing the Phils’ demise?

I can hear the collective licking of chops of Mets fans throughout the tri-state area from my balcony in Weehawken. Finally, it is the Phillies — the might Phillies! — languishing at the bottom of the NL East, in a hole so deep it can’t be emerged from, struggling just to have a shot in hell at meaningful September games. And this, with TWO Wild Cards available! How quickly times change.

Perhaps the Phillies’ troubles are put most succinctly by my friends at Crashburn Alley:

With a 9-19 June and a loss to start July, the season is all but over for the Phillies. It would require divine intervention to make the playoffs at this point: to reach an assumed 88-win threshold for the new second Wild Card, the Phillies would have to win 64% of their remaining 81 games — the pace of a 104-win team over a 162-game season.

So what went so wrongly so quickly in Philly? First, GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. believed sincerely that Ty Wigginton and pinch-hitter Jim Thome would be enough to offset the first-half losses of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, as well as the complete loss of streaky but productive Raul Ibanez. Hmm … sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Amaro, of course, wasn’t banking on losing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee going winless through the first three months of the season. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s right — Cliff Lee has yet to earn a victory in 2012. Yet, frogs and kittens are not falling from the sky.

Lee actually isn’t pitching poorly; if you clicked on the previous link to Crashburn Alley you would learn that he’s doing nearly as well as he did last season, and the W-L record and ERA don’t tell the whole story. But Lee hasn’t been very lucky, and he’s been given little support, both offensively and from the bullpen. Ah, the bullpen — another apocalyptic failure by Amaro. We thought Sandy Alderson was on mind-altering drugs while putting together the Mets bullpen? Suddenly, Sandy looks like a genius when you see what Amaro assembled. He was right-on with letting Ryan Madson walk, but that was about it. Amaro’s big sign for middle relief was Chad Qualls, who was recently let go. Sure, there’s Jonathon Papelbon to close, but there hasn’t been much to close this year. Antonio Bastardo has fallen off from the height and promise of his stellar 2011 campaign. Jose Contreras has struggled with injuries. The rest of the ‘pen is a collection of unknowns — though, you would recognize their LOOGY Raul Valdes (who has recently been demoted to the minors). The one mildly interesting arm is another lefty named Jacob Diekman, who is striking out close to 14 batters per nine innings but who also is allowing about as many baserunners. Every other reliever they have has been terrible.

As for the offense, it hasn’t existed, though it got a minor shot of adrenalin from the the return of Chase Utley, who has been strong coming out of the chute but is still only a shell of his former self. If not for the heroic outburst by Carlos Ruiz in the first half, the Phillies might have dropped so low they would be in the NL Central by now.

But, with Utley back, it changes the dynamic of the lineup enough to expect the Phillies to score runs — this isn’t another Dodgers or Cubs offense. The spastic yet somehow productive Hunter Pence has 16 dingers and Juan Pierre is hitting .318. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have been sleeping thus far, but maybe the spark of Utley will wake them up — who knows? On paper and even in games, the Phillies don’t look like a last-place club, but they’ve dug themselves such a deep hole it’s difficult to envision them climbing out. It is the Mets’ job to drop a few shovelfuls of dirt on top of them over the next three days.

Here are the pitching matchups:

Game 1: Jonathon Niese (6-3) vs. Vance Worley (4-4, 2.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP)
Like Bastardo, Worley has also taken a step back after a strong 2011 showing. Worley spent some time on the DL as well, with an elbow issue. Chances are, that joint is still barking.

Game 2: Chris Young (2-1) vs. Cliff Lee (0-5, 4.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP )
Hard to believe that in five starts, Young already has two more wins than Lee. Will Lee finally break the seal and collect a victory? If doesn’t, is it possible he’ll go the entire year without winning one ballgame? It’s like bizarro world.

Game 3: R.A. Dickey (12-1) vs. Cole Hamels (10-4, 3.08 ERA, 1.10 WHIP)
Isn’t it beautiful when marquee matchups like this work out organically? If you aren’t sure that the Phillies are out of the race, consider that Amaro has been quietly floating Hamels in trade talks over the past week or so. Like Worley, Lee, and other Phillies pitchers, Hamels has an ERA that doesn’t quite coincide with his WHIP, which suggests that he’s been unlucky, the Phillies’ defense has been woeful, and official scorers have been generous to hitters.

On the one hand, it would seem that this is a great opportunity for the Mets to put the final nails in the Phillies’ coffin, and build some momentum going into a second meeting with the woeful Cubs toward ultimately finishing the first half on a high note. On the other hand, it’s still the Phillies, and with Utley back and Lee and Hamels on the hill, they don’t seem like such an easy mark. After seeing the Mets’ defense take a dive against the Dodgers, and knowing that the bullpen is a crapshoot, it’s hard to go into any series feeling confident.

What’s your thought? Do the Phillies scare you? Do the Mets playing the Phillies scare you? Do you think the Mets should take two of three? Why or why not? And how important do you think this series is, considering the time of year and the current standings? Post your notes in the comments.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.