Utley to Howard to Francoeur

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Phillies did something rather extraordinary. They sent out a lineup where the 3-4-5 hitters were:

3rd — 36-year-old Chase Utley

4th — 35-year-old Ryan Howard

5th — 31-year-old Jeff Francoeur

Well, for this team this wasn’t actually extraordinary ... or even out of the ordinary. This was the seventh time this year that they have batted those three men in the middle of the order. They have also tried Utley, Howard and 32-year-old Grady Sizemore in the middle of the order. They have also tried Utley, Howard and 36-year-old Carlos Ruiz in the middle of the order.

Throw in that their best pitcher so far this year has been 37-year-old Aaron Harang, and they have 34-year-old Jonathan Papelbon pitching those lonely ninth innings, and the only player who seems to have trade value is 31-year-old Cole Hamels … it’s like Maleficent put a spell on this organization five years ago, and they still have not woken up.

But let’s focus on that middle of the lineup because an Utley-Howard-Francoeur is truly an astonishing thing, like finding a fossil of a long-ago civilization. Thing is: It wasn’t that long ago. Four years ago — FOUR YEARS AGO — the Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games. We were talking about them as not only the best team in baseball but as an all-time team. You will remember, they had that extraordinary four-man pitching rotation:

— Roy Halladay (163 ERA+, 220-35 strikeout to walk, 24-8 team record)

— Cliff Lee (160 ERA+, 238-52 strikeout to walk, 22-10 team record)

— Cole Hamels ( 137 ERA+, 194-44 strikeout to walk, 18-13 team record)

— Roy Oswalt (104 ERA+, 93-33 strikeout to walk, 11-13 team record)

Oswalt did not have one of his great seasons — he had four or five seasons Cy Young caliber seasons in his superb career — but it didn’t matter. That gap was made up by 23-year-old Vance Worley. The team won 16 of Worley’s 21 starts, and he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

With those amazing starters, with a good enough bullpen, and with the remnants of a lineup that had finished first or second in runs scored each of the previous six seasons, the Phillies’ Ruben Amaro (feeding off the work of Pat Gillick) had built a superteam. The core of those Phillies had already won a World Series and a pennant. Now, they won those 102 games and seemed destined for big things.

That, of course, didn’t happen. The Phillies lost to St. Louis in the playoffs. and they lost mainly because that once-formidable lineup was getting creaky. The Phillies scored 3, 3 and 0 runs in the final three games of that Cardinals series, and in the last of those games Chris Carpenter made them look utterly helpless. And old. You should never put too much stock into one game. But the way the Phillies went down that day seemed like they had crossed the river.

I remember the press conference after that game; Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, in his own inimitable way, expressed a sort of folksy confusion about his team’s offensive woes. It was a fluke, he suggested. Just one of those things. It did not seem to occur to him that players get old, and the ones who sparked the great Phillies offense— Utley, Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez — were all at the end.

Well, that did not seem to occur to anyone in the Phillies organization.The Ryan Howard deal was the classic blunder* but there was just a general sense of denial about the team getting old and the plan to counter it was to hope that time stopped. Branch Rickey famously said it’s better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late. How about three years too late? Or five years too late?

*The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia but only slightly less well known is this: Never give a 30-something, one-dimensional slugger who can’t hit lefties a crazy five-year trade-protected extension two years before his contract is up.

Howard aged out. Halladay aged out. Rollins aged out. Utley’s body deteriorated. The Phillies tried to cover the wrinkles with cosmetics like 41-year-old Jim Thome and 40-year-old Jose Contreras. Their big move was signing closer Jon Papelbon. Playing off the Jeff Foxworthy bit — If your team believes that signing a big-money closer will make the difference … you might be rooting for a lousy team.

The descent of the Phillies has been steady:

2012: 81-81, eighth in runs scored.

2013: 73-89, 13th in runs scored.

2014: 73-89, ninth in runs scored.

2015: 11-23, dead last in runs scored.

Of course they’re last in runs scored this year. Their middle of the line is Utley, who is hitting .127 with an OPS+ of 20, Howard who is hitting .217 and is 0-for-8 so far with a runner on third base, and Jeff Francoeur who, well, I can’t write my 800,000th story on Jeff Franceour. Let’s just say that, playing off the Jeff Foxworthy bit, if your team signs a 30-something Jeff Francoeur … well you know where that joke’s going.

Twenty thousand people showed up for Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. That’s way down from three years ago — the Phillies led the National League in attendance every year from 2010 to 2012 — but from another perspective it’s a miracle that they can still draw 20,000 people for this team. There are few things in sports more depressing than watching old stars scuffle. It's like watching the last Indiana Jones movie over and over. I once asked a good major league pitcher what’s the difference between playing an Old Timer’s Game and the real thing. He responded: “Hope.”