It may have only been the second series of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, but the Phillies' three-game set with the Miami Marlins already had the feeling of importance.
After dropping two of three games to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the season-opening series, and only scoring six runs in the process, a majority of the Phillies' followers were acting as if the sky was falling.
Then came Monday's game with the Fish. Despite striking out nine batters, Cole Hamels was knocked around for four runs (three earned) on eight hits in 5.1 innings of work and seemed to only make matters worse. It may have sounded ridiculous to most level-headed fans who realize the season is a marathon and a not a sprint, but in a way the Phils' fifth and sixth games almost became must-wins to some.
Fortunately the Phils helped everyone step back from the ledge by beating the Marlins on consecutive nights to win their first series of the year. Besides calming the hysteria for at least a few more days, the Phils also stopped themselves from losing their first two series to begin a season since 2007.
The Fightins didn't do it against slouch competition either. They were able to beat the Marlins' top two pitchers in Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
Wednesday night, the Phils touched up Johnson for a career-high 11 hits over just 3.2 innings. Philly scored seven runs in the game, six off Johnson, and more than doubled its offensive output through the first four games.
Thursday night wasn't as easy, but the Phils managed to get the job done thanks to a couple of long balls. After going hitless through the first three innings, Shane Victorino got his team on the board when he went deep with a solo shot. John Mayberry Jr. later singled in Hunter Pence to make it 2-0. Ty Wiggington then added another solo homer in the seventh to give the Phils a lead they would never relinquish. In the end, Philly racked up at least eight hits for the second consecutive night.
Although he was pleased with his team's offensive awakening over the last two games, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel didn't see it as a knock on Miami's two aces. And, considering their track record, rightfully so.
"Johnson and Buehrle are two different types of pitchers," said Manuel. "Johnson didn't pitch at all last year and I think it has shown in his last two starts. I think as the season goes and he gets into the hot weather he will get more velocity on his fastball. That separation (in speed) in his pitches will make him that much better. I thought his command (Wednesday) night was pretty good, but I think when he starts throwing more his pitches will get better.
"Buehrle gets the ball and throws it and tries to keep you off balance with his off-speed stuff. He keeps good composure. When you get something slow and it is up, you better hit it."
Regardless of the Phillies' early-season woes and the calander still reading April, it was a statement series. Miami went out and acquired some big pieces in the off-season with hopes of ending the Phils' five-year reign as division champs. They signed Buehrle, along with All-Stars Jose Reyes (SS) and Heath Bell (CL), all within four days of each other in December. A month later they traded for bi-polar starter Carlos Zambrano. Sure he is crazy at times, but when he has his stuff working he can be tough to beat.
The Phils didn't see Bell or Zambrano, but did see their fair share of the other two. With the two wins they were able to defeat the Marlins' top hurlers and held Reyes to a 2-for-12 line with one run scored.
Along with finally getting some run production, the entire Phils team flashed some leather and played great defense. It is something that they have done throughout the first six games and has kept them in every game except one. Manuel feels as long as his team continues to play stellar defense that they should be able to win games regardless of their makeshift lineup - which was already different for the fifth time on Thursday.
"Yeah, I think we are going to win some games," said Manuel. "If we play the way we can then I think we stand a good chance of winning some games.
"Our defense is good. Our defense is really good. We can catch the ball and we can throw it and that's what we have to do. At the same time, that's part of every good team."
While Philly has yet to play a week's worth of games, its two wins against its divisonal up-and-comer were big. Not only did the victories get the Phils back to .500, but they may have sent a subliminal message to the Marlins that regardless of who they have on their roster they still have to go out and play the games. At the same time, as Manuel was quick to point out, there is still a long way to go.
"I am pleased we won the series," Manuel said. "That's what we need to do. But at the same time (Miami) has a good ball club. They are like we are right now. We are just starting the season."