The Phillies share first place in the National League East with the upstart Florida Marlins, but is anybody noticing? Sure, some fans are still fixated on the Flyers, who are a step away from the Stanley Cup Finals, but right across the street, there's another team fighting for some respect. Many fans probably don't realize that the Phillies winning percentage (.571) is better now than it was at the end of last season (.549) when they won the NL East. The start is especially impressive when you consider a few factors.
First, remember how this team started the season with closer Brad Lidge on the DL? There was plenty of concern, because Lidge had missed all of spring training and that was on the heels of not only sub-par stats in Houston, but injuries that have dogged him for a while. Lidge returned a few games into the season and is not only healthy, but has been lights out. In 16 innings, he's not allowed an earned run and has converted all eight of his save opportunities.
Two days after Lidge returned, Jimmy Rollins - the defending NL MVP - sprained his ankle and hasn't played since. Eric Bruntlett, who was the other part of the deal that brought Lidge to town, got off to a rough start as his fill-in, but has put it all together and has pulled his average from a low of .105 on April 12 to .238 now. His defense has also improved and has made the loss of Rollins, who figures to return this weekend, a little easier to handle, bringing back memories of last season when Tadahito Iguchi took over second base for an injured Chase Utley and handled the job remarkably well.
Perhaps the biggest distraction to the Phillies success has been Ryan Howard. The 2006 NL MVP has been horrible. His average has been at or above .200 for just nine days this season and he's on a pace to strikeout 235 times this season, eclipsing his mark of 199 from 2007. He's also on pace to hit just 28 home runs this season, which is nice for most players, but nothing near what the Phillies would expect from Ryan Howard.
Third base is still an open wound for the Phillies and Pedro Feliz has done little to heal that wound. His defense has been as stellar as advertised, but his offense has been spotty.
Adam Eaton started well, only to fall apart over his last four starts and look like the 2007 version of Adam Eaton. Kyle Kendrick hasn't been as good as he showed last season, but is adjusting to the adjustments that hitters have made against him and is coming along. Then, there's Brett Myers, who hasn't been the ace that he was figured to be and is admittedly concerned about how he's pitching and what happened to his velocity. His last start was better, but there's still work to be done for him to look more like an ace starter.
Even with all of these warts, the 2008 Phillies find themselves in an enviable spot. Chase Utley is looking like an early season favorite to give the Phillies three MVP winners in a row and if he's not going to get it, Pat Burrell could be right there as well. Between Utley and Burrell, the Phillies offense has been carried through the first 35 games. It's remarkable to note that Utley and Burrell, who have combined for 22 home runs, have out-homered four teams (Oakland, Minnesota, Kansas City and San Francisco) and are tied with the Mets for total home runs. Even with Howard's struggles, the Phillies hit the 50 home run plateau 15 games faster than they did in 2007.
You have to figure though that when Rollins returns, he'll add some spark to the lineup and give Utley and Burrell another body on the bases to drive home. Howard should rebound, but then again, we've been saying that for weeks now and his early May stats are worse than his April stats, so there are no guarantees. The truth is though that this team will be able to look back on a strong start if the race goes late into the season as it did last year when the Phillies won the East by just one game on the final day of the season.
Yes, overall, things are going well for the Phillies, even if few fans want to admit it.