With a favorable schedule ahead of them, the Phillies have a great chance to sneak past some teams in the NL East. They're off to a good start, beating the Giants 5-2 last night and pulling to 3.5 games back of the division lead.
One aspect that was going work to the Phillies advantage this season was beginning the year as an underdog. Crowned favorites to win the division the last two seasons, they flat-out choked, especially in 2003 when they let the Wild Card slip away.
The Phillies will do better building toward September, instead of floating out front and waiting to be challenged. This is the time of year when teams that started slow often streak ahead, and the Phils appear to be a prime candidate to go on such a run.
One look at the standings proves their success will be greatly influenced by the rest of the NL East, which is stronger than years past. With only a few games separating first from last, this division is wide open for the team that can get wins any way possible. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the division so tight. Each team has a chance to take it.
The next time the Phils go to war with an NL East opponent is June 21 when they travel to Shea. In the meantime, they have a great chance to add some “Ws” against beatable teams.
You can’t win consistently unless you’re getting quality starts from your rotation, and right now the Phils staff is delivering. I’d hesitate in calling Lieber, Myers, Lidle, Wolf and Padilla a juggernaut, but there isn’t a glaring weakness like many other teams have. Even pitching-heavy Florida is having issues in the back of their rotation.
Last night, Randy Wolf, probably their fourth starter, won again, getting enough run support to earn his third-consecutive win and fourth in five chances. By all measures, Wolf is having an average season, giving up a lot of home runs (12), a lot of hits (77) and a couple starts where he’s allowed five runs or more. But like the rest of the staff, he hasn’t offered up a devastating implosion in a while.
As for the bullpen, in designating Terry Adams - who I’m actually happy to see accepted his assignment to Triple-A Scranton - the Phils have really trimmed the fat. You can do a lot worse than Rheal Cormier sporting the highest bullpen ERA, currently at a reasonable 5.84. Just ask Bobby Cox, whose bullpen is a complete mess.
Another encouraging sign out of the pen is manager Charlie Manuel has finally settled into certain bullpen roles, in particular, using Ryan Madson as set-up man. Ever since Madson was given his new job, the entire bullpen has been better because certain roles have been established around him. Even rookie Robinson Tejeda comes in in the same type of situation. I’m a big fan of sticking guys in spots and not moving them. Like the rest of us poor shlubs, it’s nice to have “a job,” even if you're a ballplayer.
Above all else, I'm convinced the key to this homestand is getting the big men – Jon Lieber and Jim Thome – back on track.
It’s been a little while – since May 7 at Wrigley in fact – that Lieber lasted seven innings. He’s making a lot of mistakes, offering up homers and hits by the handful, in addition to some uncharacteristic walks that haven’t been an issue with him over his career.
Pitching coach Rich Dubee, speaking to Fox broadcasters on Saturday, has pinpointed the problem in his mechanics (though I can’t remember what exactly) and seems confident in Lieber’s ability to straighten himself out. He’s scheduled to pitch tomorrow.
The grace period for “slow start” is over, and the team could really use Jim Thome’s calling-card long ball. Nothing knocks out pitchers faster than a well-timed digger. The last two years, the team lived and died that way. Boston won a championship that way. Now that parts of the lineup are clicking – Jimmy Rollins in particular - Thome’s bat is the missing weapon to capitalize on all these slap hits lately.
Seriously, what’s with all the slap-hit RBIs lately?