Dirty Dozen

A dirty dozen games into the season, with key showdowns against divisional rivals, the Phillies have barely managed to come out even. After dropping two of three to the Marlins, the Phillies pulled out a series win against Atlanta, capped by a pair of nail-biting 2-1 wins. Only lady luck saved the week from being a huge disappointment. As Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt once said: "only in Philadelphia can you experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day".

Truthfully, the Phillies dodged a couple of bullets against the Braves. A few more feet on Johnny Estrada's 400 foot fly ball in the ninth against Billy Wagner on Saturday and Ed Wade might have needed a double dose of Pepto-Bismol. But Lotfon hauled in Estrada's blast and then Chase Utley snared Brian Jordan's wicked liner, turning a death-dealing blow into the final out as the Phillies evened the series at a game apiece.

Then on Sunday, the Phillies came back in a thriller. A win is a win, but let's face it, Braves pitcher Danny Kolb might find himself on many a Philadelphian's holiday gift list after handing the Phillies the rubber match with a pair of walks and an error in the tenth.

After the first Dirty Dozen games, the pessimists in Philly are still smugly confident that the Phillies are not a championship team. On the train ride to work you may have heard a conversation like this:

"Sure, the Phillies took the series against Atlanta, but that last game was a gimmie. Should have gone the other way. Besides, they're only a .500 team tied for last place. Still can't beat the Marlins. Bullpen stinks. Except Wagner. And why isn't Utley playing every day? You see him win that game on Saturday all by himself? With the bat and with the glove! Sheesh, they never should have fired Bowa. Think he'd let Pat Burrell swing 3-0 with Thome coming up behind him? No sir! What a joke. Champs? No, not the Phillies. Maybe the Eagles, but never the Phillies."

While most fans aren't ready to call them championship caliber, the 2005 Phillies did show a little character this week, hanging in there against some difficult pitchers. Though they sit at 6-6, so do the Marlins, Braves and Mets. Only Washington has a better record in the NL East, in sole possession of first place at 8-4 and selling a ton of those nifty hats.

No one is printing World Series tickets in D.C. just yet, nor are they saying the 4-8 Yankees can't catch the 8-4 Orioles in the AL East.

It's early. Very early. There are 150 games left.

Despite his team's .500 record after an up and down week, Phillies GM Ed Wade has to be relieved and encouraged. Not only did his Phillies avoid dropping into sole possession of last place, but his biggest off-season acquisition John Lieber cemented his position as the staff ace by winning a pitchers duel against John Smoltz on Saturday to stop a three game losing streak.

More, his Phillies showed they can win close games against elite teams. They match up toe-to-toe against anyone's starting pitching, especially now that Vicente Padilla is returning to the rotation.

Brett Myers has been lights out, even when he isn't getting first pitch strikes. His ERA is a microscopic 0.44 after three starts. His curve ball is devastating. His fastball darts at the corners. He attacks the strike zone.

On Sunday, Myers got away with a fastball middle-in to Chipper Jones in the seventh, who thankfully took it for a strike. Other nights, that ball will go a long way before it lands. But the mistakes were few and the clutch pitches just kept coming. He showed focus, maturity and grit. He kept the Phillies in the game and they won it.

If Randy Wolf finds his groove and Cory Lidle stays steady, the Phillies will have a rotation that is strong five-deep - assuming Padilla is healthy. But if he or one of the other starters falters, Gavin Floyd will be ready.

Whether or not Floyd will flourish in the bullpen remains to be seen.

The bullpen has a long way to go before the confidence is back, but they pitched with guts against the Braves. Wagner gave up a few long drives and line drives, but he threw strikes and battled. Ryan Madsen showed composure after giving up the go-ahead run on Sunday by bearing down to keep it a one run game.

The defense tightened as the week went on, a trend that must continue if the Phillies hope to keep winning the close ones.

In the first dirty dozen, the Phillies have held their own, even as the bullpen fell apart. Meanwhile, Jim Thome has yet to hit a home run. If the bullpen settles down, and Thome gets hot, they might just begin to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

If not, the pack might begin to separate from them.

The Week Ahead: The Mets, Rockies and another shot at the Braves.

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