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Watching On in a Lost Season

If and when: Domonic Brown's likely return to the Phillies will be one story to follow as the 2012 season winds down. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
If and when: Domonic Brown's likely return to the Phillies will be one story to follow as the 2012 season winds down. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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It’s hard to say exactly when the Phillies; 2012 season slipped beyond the point of no return. Maybe it was the day Chase Utley came back against the Pirates, homered in his first at-bat, and then got to see up close what the rest of us saw through the first two and a half months: a bullpen that simply can’t hold a lead or even, as was the case that night, keep a game close. Or maybe it was that series in Miami bridging June and July, when the team was swept by a Marlins club that previously had been struggling as badly as the Phils themselves. Or perhaps it was that finale last week in Los Angeles, when Jonathan Papelbon couldn’t hold a two-run tenth-inning lead that would have given the club a sweep of a decent Dodgers team, and a badly needed jolt of optimism.

Whatever the case, the season is lost, flushed in a nauseating swirl of Chad Qualls pitches mashed to the gap and Hunter Pence flails at eye-high fastballs and Jake Diekman walks and Placido Polanco groundouts and Jimmy Rollins popups. The team itself is pretty boring, with a lot of unsympathetic players—Pence with his low baseball IQ, Papelbon’s excruciatingly slow pace and propensity for coming up small in the biggest spots, Kyle Kendrick by the mere fact of his existence on my favorite team’s roster. The losses themselves have come in almost every variety imaginable, from laughably bad luck (bloops and bleeders allowed, line smashes right at opposing fielders) to hide-your-eyes-awful defense, base running and managerial decisions. The one seeming constant is that they lose late, which means that you waste hours for a miserable payoff. The team is 3-9 in extra-inning games this season; at least in terms of stomach churn and time squandered, "free baseball" ain’t free.

I will admit to having spent much, much more time reading about trade rumors and the status of Cole Hamels’ contract negotiations than watching actual games over the last month, and that will continue to be the case until the late afternoon of July 31. The possible departures of Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and possibly even Cliff Lee or Rollins will dominate the news until the deadline, and we'll all balance some melancholy at seeing off some of the core players of the franchise's greatest run with optimism for whoever they bring back in return. But we’re baseball fans and Phillies die-hards, and so we need reasons to stay involved even beyond the trade-deadline dramas of the next week and a half. After the jump, my countdown wishlist for the final two months of 2012, a season we’ll mostly look to forget as soon as it mercifully concludes.

5. Some Relief

I’ll admit that part of what galls me about the Phillies’ bullpen struggles is that I actually liked the approach they took going into the season. With a rotation that still figured to dominate, it made sense to invest in a reliable closer and then count on being able to assemble the rest of the relief corps from a group of young arms and role guys. But every single pitcher with experience—young vets like Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes and older guys like Qualls and Jose Contreras—either got hurt or under-performed, and the kids, from Joe Savery and Diekman to Justin DeFratus and Phillippe Aumont, have been either lousy at the major-league level or, despite the horrific struggles in Philadelphia, haven’t even gotten there. Some kind of stability over the last two months, ideally led by Bastardo, Diekman and DeFratus, would go a long way toward inspiring hope for next season.

4. Nixberry Crunch

It’s all too possible that the Phillies will finish this season with major question marks at four of eight lineup positions—third base and all three outfield spots—plus aging and/or injury-prone guys at the other four. It would be a big benefit to see Laynce Nix and John Mayberry, Jr. solidify one outfield position as a platoon. For his career, the lefty-hitting Nix has a .255/.298/.454 line against righties, with somewhat better numbers over the last few seasons. Mayberry had put up a .284/.313/.560 line facing lefties in his career before mashing two homers off Giants southpaw Barry Zito on Sunday. They’ll combine to make about $3 million in 2013, and could put up 25 homers between them while providing above-average defense in a corner (or about-average defense in center). Such a performance would free up resources to fill those other areas of need.

3. Happy Halladay

Of all the perplexing and dispiriting things about this 2012 season, I’m not sure anything has gotten to me more than seeing Roy Halladay revealed as mortal. During the month of May, the future Hall of Famer went 1-3 with a 6.11 ERA (the team went 1-5 in his six starts), and allowed six homers. We now know he was injured, but at age 35, with all that mileage and some loss of fastball velocity, it’s fair to wonder if this is the start of Doc’s decline. My guess is no, both because the all-time greats typically remain great a little longer and because, well, it’s Roy f---ing Halladay. But ten starts at his established level to close 2012 would erase one big question mark heading into 2013.

2. Liberate the Broadcast Booth!

Between 2009, when we lost the legendary and beloved Harry Kalas, and 2011, I firmly believed that it wouldn’t be truly clear how much replacement play-by-play announcer Tom McCarthy sucked until the team did, too. Now we know, and McCarthy’s failings as a broadcaster are an everyday added pinch of salt in the gaping wound of this season. From his botching of basic game details to the stunning banality of his analysis and seeming delight in stroking the sponsors, he’s borderline unlistenable. I know McCarthy is universally regarded as an exceptionally nice guy, I have no reason to believe this isn’t the case, and I couldn’t care less: he’s got to go. Move Scott Franzke to TV, bring in someone else, auction the right to call the game among season ticketholders, whatever... but please send McCarthy back to North Jersey where he can let his Mets flag fly free.

1. Big Brown

In a season of enormous disappointment, maybe it makes a screwy kind of sense that Domonic Brown could finally start to deliver on his enormous potential and cast some light forward into next season. On the whole, he’s treaded water at AAA in 2012: slow start, spring surge, summer injury. With between one and three outfielders—Victorino, Juan Pierre and Pence—likely to be traded in the near future, Brown is all but certain to get another shot, and once he’s up, it would be surprising not to see him play every day. He’ll get to do so in a stress-free situation: down in the order of a team way out of the race. He’s still just 24. His future is in front of him, and how well and how quickly he reaches it remains a huge factor in the Phillies’ chances to render the nightmare of 2012 a blip rather than the start of a long sojourn in the baseball netherworld.