Not a stretch to see Phillies make a stretch run
PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies are far from a hopeless cause. You just have to project this as the club that typically played extremely well in the second half while it was winning five straight division titles.
In the process you have to largely disregard the way the Phillies have played for much of the 2012 season. There have been injuries that constituted valid excuses, although those haven't consoled a fan base grown accustomed to success.
But Chase Utley is not far from returning. And then with Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay rejoining the club, all things might again be possible. But in the meantime, the Phils have to find a way to get back north of .500.
There were few encouraging developments Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies, who had beaten the Rockies the two previous nights, while scoring 14 runs, became the first victims of Colorado's experimental four-man rotation. Rockies starter Jeff Francis gave up a leadoff home run to Jimmy Rollins but nothing more as he pitched five innings, pushing beyond the new Rockies' pitch limit of 75 pitches, all the way to 76. And then a quartet of Rockies relievers held the fort the rest of the way.
Vance Worley had a solid start for the Phillies, giving up two runs over seven innings, but it all added up to a deflating 4-1 loss.
Still, the Phillies' regular season is 91 games away from completion. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, when asked how many games it would take to win the NL East this year, suggested 92, or 90, and further suggested that 88 victories would "get something," which probably means one of two Wild Card berths.
These seem to be realistic estimates. In the NL East, the Nationals have had wonderful pitching, but have struggled to score at times. The Mets have received some remarkable starting pitching and they have remained above .500 despite bullpen difficulties. But those are the kinds of difficulties that have to be fixed. The Braves suffered a serious loss, when starter Brandon Beachy had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Beachy had been tied for the Major League lead in ERA at 2.00. The Marlins have added considerably to their talent base but have been maddeningly inconsistent.
It is a highly competitive, balanced division, but it does not seem to contain one club that will run away from the rest of the competition. To get to 90 victories, the Phillies would have to go 57-34 from here. That's not an unimaginable pace for them, if they get back to their better form. Manuel believes that it can happen. He has faith in his club, based on its past achievements, but he admits that a lot must move in a positive direction.
"The starting pitching definitely plays up big, but at the same time it's the consistent playing day in and day out and playing strong defensive and having good hitting, especially timely hitting," Manuel said. "That's what contributes to long winning streaks."
And this would also require the Phillies to get back to a winning feeling that may not have been present for much of this season.
"When we're playing good baseball, we don't even talk about winning," Manuel said. "We look at it like we're going to win. Nobody even talks about it. When we're playing real good, we come to the park and we have the attitude that we're going to win the game and we don't even talk about it. When we were winning, we'd just come and play as hard as we can. And I like it that way. That's a good feel."
For the immediate future, the Phillies need to get back to a more consistent level of play while waiting for full health to return to their roster.
"I think there are going to be teams in our division that are hot and cold," Manuel said. "I think that we can play better than what we have so far and we can get back in the running. We can run off a streak, especially when we get back all of our guys healthy. That's kind of what we're planning and hoping on."
Later this month, after Interleague Play ends, the Phillies will move into portions of the schedule that are heavy on NL East opponents. It is there that they will sink or swim. But there will be opportunities for upward mobility.
"That's the good part," Manuel said. "If you don't beat the teams in your [division] you don't deserve to win. So it's there for us. It's sitting right there in front of us."
Five straight division titles earn the right to hope. That, the reasonable hope for better health and the fact that it is still June all allow the Phillies to view the rest of this season as an opportunity to get well on several levels.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.