DeMarco: Myriad of Issues Hit Some Teams Early on

There aren't many things that rattle Charlie Manuel, especially in April.

So even with his All-Star shortstop, closer and two starting pitchers on the disabled list, Manuel isn't about to blink.

Just listen to his answer to a stream of questions about the Phillies' rehabbing foursome of Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ?

"When I get them back, I get them back,'' Manuel said. “I look at the other side of it — the guys we've got now, how I'm going to use them and try to win a game, and stay focused on that.''

If that means Juan Castro and Wilson Valdez taking turns replacing Rollins, Nelson Figueroa winning his first start in almost nine years, and Manuel having to navigate through too many lofty bullpen ERAs for awhile, so be it.

"We've always taken that approach,'' Manuel said. "We don't say a lot about it because we don't want excuses. We just keep on playing, and when a (bench) guy gets a chance to play, he usually does good.''

Besides, the rehab news mostly is encouraging. You'd think a Brad Lidge outing would be a big deal at Double-A Reading, Pa., but it was overshadowed the other night by five hitless innings from Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' phenom who was facing the Phillies affiliate. But there's no understating Lidge's value to the Phillies bullpen, and he could be back as soon as this weekend.

J.C. Romero already has returned, and Blanton will be back in the rotation next week. However, the return dates of Rollins (calf) and Happ (elbow) are less-certain. Rollins has begun taking batting practice and running, but is at least a couple weeks away, and Happ only is long-tossing at this point.

"It would be good to have our strongest roster out there, yeah,'' Manuel said. “You'd hope we could get that pretty soon. But like I said, I try to stay focused on the team we have today to win that game. That's the attitude on our club, and the right attitude goes a long way.''

The Phillies hardly are the only contender with issues as the calendar is about to turn to May — and some of them may need more than the patience of Manuel to solve.

Los Angeles: On the last day of a dreadful 2-7 road trip that concluded Wednesday, rookie John Ely was making his major-league debut replacing disabled Vicente Padilla, Xavier Paul was playing left field in place of disabled Manny Ramirez, and Jamey Carroll was playing shortstop in Rafael Furcal's absence due to a hamstring injury.

We've already seen the dreaded 'TBA' a couple of times in the Dodgers' probable starting pitcher listings, and on Saturday, Joe Torre will be forced to bring back knuckleballer Charlie Haeger (0-3, 7.45) on three days rest after he was knocked out in the fifth inning of his last outing.

You can guess what the back-of-the-rotation uncertainty is doing to the bullpen, as Ramon Troncoso is on pace for a 100-appearance season — he was one of three relievers to pitch in both ends of a Tuesday double-header — and Torre already has run through 11 different relievers.

No, things haven't been right in LA since spring training began, and now general manager Ned Colletti has called out Matt Kemp for a lack of production.

That only hammers home the reality that as tenuous as Ramirez's future is in Los Angeles, the lineup just doesn't score enough runs to win consistently without him -- especially with the pitching staff in its current state.

Boston: The Red Sox have won seven of 10 since the four-game Fenway sweep at the hands of the Rays, and it doesn't get any more impressive than a 2-0 shutout on Wednesday, when Jon Lester turned in seven dominant innings, followed by the 100-mph heat of Daniel Bard, and another save for Jonathan Papelbon.

Daisuke Matsuzaka returns to the rotation on Saturday, and this staff is too deep and talented for some early struggles to continue.

You also know that you're in some trouble when your outfield is Jonathan Van Every, Darnell McDonald and Jeremy Hermida — and that situation will change with the healthy returns of Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury.

But the Sox are looking up at the Rays and Yankees, and whether or not that changes likely will hinge on two things.

1) Slowing the bleeding — or more accurately, the alarming stolen-base numbers: 38 allowed, 3 caught stealing through Thursday.

Jason Varitek — the better overall defender and game-caller than Victor Martinez — is starting more lately. But there soon could be at least three quality options on the market:

Bengie Molina, if and when the Giants decide to turn to a Buster Posey/Eli Whiteside combo; impending free agent A.J. Pierzynski, if the White Sox can't get it going; and Arizona's Chris Snyder, once Miguel Montero return from knee surgery in a month or so.

2) Barring an unexpected turnaround from David Ortiz, putting him out of his misery and putting another big bat in the middle of the lineup. For now, that means more DH starts for Victor Martinez and Mike Lowell.

But it's no secret that the Sox are a team in transition, with a set of marginalized veterans spending their final days in Fenway. That transition needs to be sped up and occur in-season, rather than after it's over.

Colorado: Three-fifths of the starting rotation is on the DL now that Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel joined Jeff Francis on back-to-back days this week.

Hammel wasn't pitching well anyway, so it made sense to give him a breather with a short DL stint. But De La Rosa's injury (torn finger tendon) is more costly, and will keep him out beyond the 15-day period.

Closer Huston Street is disabled as well, and so is Brad Hawpe, the most-expendable of the bunch as the Rockies have the game's deepest five-man outfield.

Other more-subtle changes also have occurred, as Miguel Olivo has supplanted Chris Iannetta, who was sent back to Triple-A to figure out his swing.

Fortunately, a deep player development system is being tapped, and we're getting another look at mercurial Eric Young Jr. and top pitching prospects Jhoulys Chacin and Esmil Rogers.

Atlanta: Nobody had a better spring than the Braves, with everything from the emergence of Jason Heyward to the rejuvenation of Billy Wagner breaking their way.

But April is bottoming out with a losing streak that extended to nine games on Thursday — their longest slide since 2006 — including an 0-7 road trip through New York and St. Louis.

One look at the National League team offensive statistics tells you the biggest problem here. Just look at or near the bottom, and that's where you'll find the Braves in every key category.

When Bobby Cox tried Yunel Escobar in the leadoff spot on Tuesday, that spot in the lineup had worse season numbers than the No. 9 spot in the Braves' lineup. And for all his early heroics, Heyward has 25 strikeouts in his first 71 at-bats.

But no 20-year-old should be expected to carry a lineup, and so when Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus don't produce, the Braves don't score enough to win consistently. That already has prompted calls for acquiring another bat — namely Adrian Gonzalez — but GM Frank Wren says nothing is in the works.

White Sox: Back in March, the thinking was that Carlos Quentin was primed for a comeback season, and the emphasis on speed and versatility would generate more runs than their station-to-station, home-run based offense of recent years.

But it hasn't played out that way in April, as the Sox were hitting a league-low .222 through Thursday — and had the highest home-run total in the AL. At least they were leading the league in steals, but they were held to two runs or less in seven of their first 20, and lost all seven.

And already, speculation about impending free-agent Pierzynski's departure has started. But Manager Ozzie Guillen still believes in his offense, and there is reason enough to give it another month.

Seattle: For everything that general manager Jack Zduriencik has done in turning around the Mariners, he miscalculated in thinking that Franklin Gutierrez, Milton Bradley and the Ken Griffey Jr./Mike Sweeney DH platoon represent enough middle-of-the-lineup run production.

The M's DH's have only one extra base hit, and the team still hasn't reached double figures in home runs — and trails AL leader Paul Konerko by one. More importantly, league-leading Tampa Bay is averaging two runs per game more than Seattle.

This is a different season in the AL West in that the Angels appear to be beatable. So with that in mind, Zduriencik's patience can only extend so long.

Q. It seems as if there have been a lot of empty seats and record-low attendance figures so far this season. Should Major League Baseball be concerned?
— Robert Masterson, New Mexico

A. It depends on the market, Robert, but yes, there are concerns about drops in attendance so far this season.

Four downtrodden franchises recently set single-game attendance lows in their current ballparks — Cleveland with 10,071 at Progressive Field, Toronto with 10,610 at the Rogers Centre, Baltimore with 9,129 at Camden Yards, and Washington with 11,191 at Nationals Park.

And about two-thirds of all 30 teams are reporting a decline through the first month, led by the Mets, who are down by more than 6,000 fans per game, as well as Houston and Arizona.

The big question is, what factors are to blame?

The economy certainly is at the forefront. But while weather often is a factor, that certainly hasn’t been the case this April.

In several cases, we’re talking about teams with little chance of contending for a playoff spot — and that gets back to the issue of competitive balance, or a lack thereof.

Q. How can you tell if a batter checked his swing or went around? And when or why do they ask the first- or third-base umpire for the call?
— John, Molalla, Ore.

A. This is one of those tough judgment calls that umpires have to deal with regularly.

Two things that almost always result in a strike being called are the hitter breaking his wrists and the bat coming all the way through the strike zone and ending up in front of home plate.

But again, it’s a judgment call, and we’re talking about something that happens in less than a second. That’s where the appeal comes in.

The rule book says that if an appeal is requested, the home-plate umpire must ask a base umpire (first-base umpire for a right-handed hitter, third-base umpire for a left-handed hitter) for help.

But I’ve often seen home-plate umpires say no, and that they saw the half-swing well enough to make the correct call. But if an appeal request is granted, then whatever ruling the base umpire makes is what stands.

Q. When a batter is hit by a pitch, can a runner on third steal home?
— Steve Schreiner, Papillion, Neb.

A. When a batter is hit by a pitch, that creates a dead-ball situation, which means no runners can advance – unless, of course, they are forced to do so as a result of the hit batsmen going to first base.

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