The Phillies have pulled to an even 20-20 on the season, putting them just five games back of the National League Wild Card with 122 games left to play. Let the good times roll.
It’s been a carbon copy season for the Phillies, another hot May home stand to rejuvenate interest after an ugly start. Instead of revisiting last night's gem by Cole Hamels, let's run down the differences between April and May.
Right off the bat, they have a closer they can count on in Brett Myers. Since moving to the bullpen, Myers has converted all but one save opportunity and has been lights-out in just about every appearance. The Phillies owe Myers a debt of gratitude for preserving more than a few wins.
It’s tempting to say Myers is the biggest difference between April and May, but a better reason is the Phillies' string of quality starts. Hamels took a perfect game into the seven innings yesterday but settled for a mere 11 strikeout, two-run effort over eight brilliant innings. That makes nine quality starts in their last 10 games, which is championship-caliber pitching. Both Adam Eaton and Freddy Garcia have shown signs of turning the corner, which is a huge development.
Between the starting staff and Myers, the deficiencies in the bullpen have been minimized. A handful of unproven pitchers – Francisco Rosario, Yoel Hernandez, Fabio Castro – haven’t pitched for days. In April, they would have been called on in full force.
It's tempting to say it's all about pitching, but it's not. The offense now leads the league in runs scored with 206, one ahead of the Mets. Hard to believe, just days after watching the team struggle to mount any offense against Dave Bush. They’re a top-five team in most categories, including home runs, extra base hits and stolen bases. The difference is the little stuff. They lead the league in walks. They actually lead the league in getting hit by pitched balls by a wide margin. Without Howard, they’ve been striking out less, too, just 36 strikeouts the last seven games, about five less than league average. Put the ball in play, and good things happen, and it's been happening a lot lately, especially down toward the bottom of the lineup. Greg Dobbs, Abraham Nunez and Carlos Ruiz are hitting for high average. We'll see how long that lasts, but they're certainly having an impact during this home stand.
There have been smart at bats from unlikely sources. How about the two-out at bats by Ruiz, Hamels and Aaron Rowand in the second inning? It was a great series, keyed by Ruiz's textbook walk against Jeff Suppan to turn the lineup over. Then Hamels singled up the middle to put two men on for Rowand, who took Suppan into the seats – on a pretty good pitch. Rowand deserves a lot of credit this season - he may be their most valuable hitter so far.
Let’s not forget the third part: defense. Since taking over at third, Nunez has been an upgrade over Wes Helms. Led by Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino, the team leads the league in outfield assists. Jimmy Rollins is as steady as ever, and how many great blocks has Ruiz set down at home? More than I remember from Mike Lieberthal over entire seasons.
It's all adding up. Instead sinking, they’re floating. Hovering. Hanging out in the middle, like many a playoff qualifier has done before. By baseball's very nature, it will be difficult for the Phillies to fall out of contention, which is how it always is. Rounding the quarter point, the Phillies have reminded us, once again, that it's a long season.
Game chat: Phillies set sights on four-game sweep
Ben Sheets (3-2, 4.10 ERA) faces Freddy Garcia (1-2, 5.17 ERA). Game time is 3:05 p.m. ET. Discuss it here. [Live Boxscore]