You know that feeling that you have after even just an extra day or two away from work? Well, the Phillies have had some extra time off, but let's hope they're feeling better about returning to work than most of us do. Their four-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds seems like an eternity ago, but they still need to feed off of the energy and momentum that came from those four wins as they play catch-up in the National League East.
In case you've forgotten where we were when we last left off, the Phillies stand in third place of the NL East, 4 1/2 games back of Atlanta, but just 1/2 game behind the rival New York Mets. Looking back now, it's amazing how different things would feel if the Phillies had converted just one of their two losses to the Braves into wins during the last homestand. That one extra win would have put the Phillies ahead of the Mets and have them just 2 1/2 games behind Atlanta. When people say that pennants aren't won in any month other than September, point out situations like this, where one lowly game heading into the All-Star Break would have made a big difference in the standings. Unfortunately for us - and the Phillies - we can't do that, so we have to rely on dealing the cards that we've been dealt.
Ryan Howard has been a second-half monster in his career with the Phillies. He came into the season hitting almost 50 points higher after the all-star game than before. He also had 54% of his home runs and 53% of his RBI in the second-half.
A big part of the climb back to the top involves injuries, or rather, getting players back from injuries and avoiding anything more serious than a few aches and pains. First back will be a dog-fight between reliever Chad Durbin and third baseman Placido Polanco. Durbin has a head start, having made two successful rehab appearances at Lakewood. Durbin, who has been on the DL since June 24 with a strained hamstring, is due back this week, possibly even before the end of the series in Chicago. Polanco, who has been out with a sore elbow is set to start a rehab assignment tonight and figures to be back either this weekend or for the start of a four-game series in St. Louis that starts on Monday. Those two moves alone could help the Phillies to continue the mini-roll that they started leading up to their midsummer vacation.
Of course, the biggest return will be that of Chase Utley, who is out with a torn ligament in his wrist that required surgery to repair. Best guess on Utley is early-to-mid August, but Utley himself insists that he'll be back on the earlier side of the timetable rather than the latter. He may be right, since in the past, he's been able to rebound quicker than the doctors and trainers figured that he would be able to return.
The pitching staff has had its ups and downs. At times, the Phillies starters have come up pretty big for them and at other times, it's looked like the return of Randy Lerch all over again. Over the last month, Kyle Kendrick (2-1, 3.82) and Cole Hamels (1-2, 3.86) - both big components on the Phils' staff - have pitched very well. Kendrick has seemed to have gotten himself settled in and has made the adjustments that were necessary for him to get big league hitters out on a consistent basis, while Hamels has appeared to have found the maturity that was sometimes lacking in his mound presence. Of course, Roy Halladay (2-3, 2.68) and Jamie Moyer (3-2, 3.41) have led the charge for the Phillies throughout the season and have been especially tough over the past four weeks.
Then, there's Joe Blanton. The guy who was the model of consistency for the Phillies after coming over from Oakland in a trade during the 2008 season, has been anything but consistent. The one thing that Blanton has going for him, is the one thing that Roy Halladay would love to have; run support. Even with an ERA over five the past month, Blanton is 2-0, while Halladay is under .500 during the same period and has allowed 2 1/2 runs per game less than Blanton.
Manager Charlie Manuel has set up his pitching rotation for the second-half by starting off with Moyer, Blanton, Hamels and Halladay pitching in Chicago and Kendrick getting the start in the series opener against the Cardinals in St. Louis on Monday.
The biggest question in the bullpen is Brad Lidge. Can he or can't he return to the form that he showed in 2008? The further away that we get from those days, the less likely it seems that he would be able to return to being anywhere near the "lights out Lidge" that led the Phillies to their first World Series Championship in 23 years, just two short years ago. The Phillies can't limp forward with Lidge being their bad leg. They need help from somewhere, whether it's from within or through a deal with another club and they can't let it linger for too long, because falling further behind isn't much of an option for the lads from South Philly.
As far as a potential deal, watch for the name Scott Downs to come popping up from time-to-time in connection with the Phillies. Downs is a left-hander, who has posted a 2.65 ERA in 41 games with the Blue Jays this season. The 34 year-old hasn't been a closer much in his career and has amassed just 16 saves over nine seasons with the Expos, Cubs and Blue Jays, but he might be able to lend a hand here-and-there to cover Lidge's struggles and could certainly provide another left-handed arm to compliment J.C. Romero.
The rest of the bullpen might be serviceable enough to make it through the rest of the season, but certainly, if there are any other moves that could be made, the Phillies need to at least explore the opportunities.
The Phillies schedule features just six remaining games with Atlanta (three in Philly, three in Atlanta) and 12 games left with the Mets (six at home, six in New York), including a stretch of six games in seven days against both clubs at Citizens Bank Park starting on September 20. Those two series will take the Phillies right up to their final six games of the season, which will take them to Washington for three and then to Atlanta to wrap-up the season with a three-game series October first, second and third.