Why the Phillies look like a solid bet down the stretch -- again
The Phillies are playing better than they were last year at this time, when the Mets practically handed them the NL East title. Philadelphia has won 10 of its last 12, and moved from three games back in the East to 1½ games up in that stretch. Ryan Howard is killing the ball. Shane Victorino ... wow. Brad Lidge is lights out. Brett Myers is money.
And then comes Tuesday night, when the team scuffling against Mike Hampton and the Braves at Citizens Bank Park didn't look much like the Phillies we've seen in the past couple of weeks. Jimmy Rollins took an oh-fer. So did Victorino, the Flyin' Hawaiian. Cole Hamels, the ace, lurched and sputtered and threw the ball away when he had a batter picked off, leading to a run in the 3-2 loss. It was an ugly night for the home team, the kind of night that makes Phillies fans a little jumpy.
"We lost a game," Howard told reporters Tuesday night. "I don't think there's any reason to go into a frenzy. It happens."
Howard, of course, probably wouldn't go into a frenzy if a pack of maple-loving termites invaded his bat rack. But he's right. The Phillies' lead in the NL East, by virtue of the Mets' win over the Cubs, has been trimmed a bit. Still, at this point there are more reasons to believe in the Phillies than to bail on them. A few:
Howard: The big first baseman is hitting .347 this month, with nine home runs and 27 RBIs in 21 games. Maybe most impressive during this stretch is that Howard has cut down on his heretofore prodigious number of strikeouts. In Philly's 14-7 September run Howard has 17 K's. In the 137 games before that, he had 178. Fewer strikeouts has translated, at least somewhat, to more walks, which means his on-base percentage (.427) is the highest he's had this year. All this after a .213 August in which he had just a .328 OBP.
Howard's strikeouts have long been a concern for many around the Phillies. He set a single-season record last year, with 199. But the Phillies certainly don't seem to mind, especially when you consider he has 46 homers and 141 RBIs, more than anyone in baseball.
"Those numbers speak for themselves," manager Charlie Manuel said recently. "You can say whatever you want to say. He's the best run producer in the league. He has the RBIs and he has the homers."
Rollins: After a slow start, the '07 NL MVP is hitting .322 with a .398 OBP this month , both his best marks of the year. In his last 12 games he's at .333 and .429. When the leadoff man is hitting, the Phillies are clicking.
Victorino: Manuel had his centerfielder in the No. 2 hole earlier this year, but he's sticking with him in the No. 6 spot now to give some speed and oomph to the bottom of the lineup. And it's working. In September he's hitting .333 with a .372 OBP. Since dropping into the 6 hole on Sept. 8, a span of 15 games, Victorino is hitting .379 with a .419 OBP, three homers, three doubles, a triple and 10 runs scored.
Myers: Since a tune-up stint in the minors, Myers is 7-3, with a 2.79 ERA. He had a bad start his last time out, but before that he had gone eight straight starts of at least seven innings. With a bullpen like the Phillies have, featuring closer Lidge at the end (40-for-40 in save chances), a starter who goes deep into the game is golden.
In the past five years the Phillies are 87-50 in September, the best record in the NL. Last year, of course, they famously came from seven games behind with 17 to play as the Mets collapsed. The Phillies didn't play particularly well in the final week of last season. They had a chance to clinch on the next-to-last day, but lost to the Nationals. They went just 4-2.
Still, they pulled it out. And this year, playing better down the stretch despite Tuesday's setback to the Braves, they're aiming for the franchise's first back-to-back trips to the playoffs since 1980-81. The way things are set up -- the lead in the East, the wild card to fall back on, only four games left (one against the Braves, three against the Nationals, all at home) -- this should be a cruise for the Phillies.
Unless, of course, they lose two in a row or something. Then, we can really go into a frenzy.
Stud of the Day
You pay a guy $137.5 million, this is what you expect: A dominating performance that, at least for one night, quiets the talk of your team's demise. The Mets' Johan Santana (15-7, 2.64 ERA) was superb on Tuesday, striking out 10 and walking only one in eight innings in a 6-2 win over the Cubs that kept the New Yorkers a game ahead of Milwaukee in the wild-card standings. Santana is scheduled to pitch again Sunday, if need be.