PHILADELPHIA » Last year at this time, Shane Victorino was just getting back from St. Louis, site of the 2009 All-Star Game where he became the first from Hawaii to make the midseason classic as a position player.
He batted 1-for-2 and scored a run.
That was then.
This year, Victorino is returning from his offseason home in Las Vegas after spending some quality time with his new bride, Melissa, while trying to figure out why he and the two-time defending National League champion Phillies are having such a hard time of it going for three in a row.
The party line coming from Victorino — and the rest of the Phillies — is that there’s still plenty of time for them to get it together and make up ground on the first-place Braves and second-place Mets in the NL East. After all, they’ve done it before.
Except for one thing: These Phillies — riddled with injuries and bogged down by lack of production from key players — don’t seem like the same ballclub.
It’s more than their modest 47-40 record at the break, enhanced by a four-game sweep of the Reds to finish the first half with a flourish. These Phils simply don’t have the same look of their predecessors, who won it all in 2008 over Tampa Bay, then took the mighty Yankees almost to the wire last year before dropping the World Series in six games.
With Roy Halladay added to the pitching staff in place of departed Cliff Lee, the Phils were expected to pick up in 2010 where they left off.
Only it hasn’t worked out that way. Victorino’s curious season — he’s already matched his career high in homers (14) and his 48 RBIs threaten to shatter his career best (62), but is hitting only .250 — typifies the way it’s gone for Charlie Manuel’s team.
"It’s been a little bit frustrating — average-wise,” conceded the 29-year-old former St. Anthony star from Maui, who signed a three-year $22 million extension back in January. "Beyond that I’m pleased where everything else is at.
"I’d like to be hitting .300. Obviously I’m not. But it’s about the team and winning and we’re definitely not where we want to be. To me, that’s more important than individual things."
So then he didn’t really mind not being in Anaheim the past few days with the rest of the stars. While playing in the game in St. Louis last year was an unforgettable experience, he has no illusions about it being a regular thing.
"I appreciate last year I got voted in by the fans,” said Victorino, who’ll soon be a father for the second time. "It’s an honor to go to the game, but there’s not much down time.
"To enjoy the three days and to be recognized as an All-Star, that in itself is good. But this year not going and getting three days off is gonna be nice. To relax, go home and see the family, come back and finish the second half strong.
"That’s what it’s about. Individual goals are nice, but ultimately it’s about winning the World Series. I don’t care what I do individually during the season. I want to have another World Series ring.”
Victorino’s been juggled throughout the lineup mainly due to injuries to Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, batting leadoff 60 times, second 11 times, fifth twice and seventh 11 times. But his power and run production have come as a pleasant surprise to a Philadelphia team that has often had to scuffle for runs.
However, Victorino’s 42-point dip in batting average from last year’s .292 has been symptomatic of the Phils’ struggles at the plate.
"They’re throwing him a lot of changeups and hooks — and he’s swinging at ’em,” said his manager, Manuel. "He’s a fastball hitter, but if they keep throwing them he’ll learn how to hit them.
"Vic’s strong for a little guy, capable of hitting 20 homers. And I think when it’s all said and done, his average will be a little higher."
As long as the Phillies move up higher in the standings that’s all the player known here as the "Flyin’ Hawaiian” cares about.
"We’re worried, but we’re not panicking,” said Victorino, happy having fellow Hawaii athlete, Dane Sardinha, on the team the past two weeks as the backup catcher. "We’ve been here before. That cliche is our cliche.
"But when we say that we know we have to play good baseball the second half to win our division. Everybody’s gotten better. We’re chasing two teams. We know what we can do. We just have to go out there and play."
In other words, let his bat and glove do the talking rather than his mouth, which got him into trouble in the days before the All-Star break. Victorino said the fans should cheer rather than criticize the players, implying they’re front-runners who’ve conveniently forgotten the team’s recent success.
The next day, he was roasted on the local talk shows and in the media, which resulted in Victorino refusing to address the matter — or anything else.
Hours later, he belted his career-high-tying 14th homer in an extra-inning win over the Reds, which set the tone for a big weekend.
"I’d have never thought that,” Victorino said about his impressive power numbers that have him just two homers and 11 RBIs behind slugger Ryan Howard. "I’m definitely ahead of schedule.
"But it’s not about individual. It’s about the team.”
After the few days off to get recharged, Victorino and the Phillies are hoping to resume making their move.
"With the guys being hurt you’ve got to find a way to pick up the slack,” he explained "Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do that.
"I want to be the guy, but it’s gonna take hard work, dedication and focus and putting what’s happened behind you."