Phils set for exciting stretch run
PHILADELPHIA - As in a typical August for the past few seasons in Philadelphia, these are the days for the Phillies when the tension in the air can be as irritating as the humidity.
With the Eagles nested in their Lehigh University complex, the Phillies have taken over as the main attraction in town. And with good reason, too. They have made the most of the moment in the previous two seasons with consecutive National League East championships along with a pair of World Series appearances.
But no one said it would be easy. Over the past two Augusts, the Phillies have certainly made it interesting. Last night's resounding 9-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants could have been the first step along a long path to their third division divisional title.
The victory bumped the Phils into the lead for the National League wild card over the Giants by one game and also some breathing room between them and the always dangerous St. Louis Cardinals. Added to the mix was the return of second baseman Chase Utley, who was sidelined since late June with torn ligaments in his right thumb.
With a three-game winning streak in the their pocket and 16 wins in their last 18 games at Citizens Bank Park as well as 19 wins in the last 24 games overall - a mark shared with Minnesota for the best record in baseball since July 22 - one can easily assume the Fightins' should be on their way.
But don't look too far ahead. Last season, the Phillies struggled in early August until some mid-month streaks got things in gear, ones that were likely fueled by the additions of Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee, who both had stellar postseasons. They finally secured the division on September 30.
This season, Utley is back after a seven-week hiatus and injured Ryan Howard is on his way back soon after a likely rehab stint. They also can rely on Roy Oswalt, who gained his second victory as a Phillie with an impressive six innings after a shaky opening one last night.
With the return of some key veterans to the lineup as well as the additions of Oswalt and Roy Halladay on the mound, the Phils should have a better gauge of their anticipated post-season berth as they have a strong start to a 24-game stretch over 23 days, a period that will take them into the heart of the pennant race in September.
Entering last night's game, Phillies' starters had a 10-4 record with a 2.84 ERA and two complete games during their past 23 games (team was 18-5 overall). They had also allowed three earned runs or fewer in 17 of those 23 starts and went six or more innings in 19 games.
They will also have to contend with the destined Atlanta Braves, who have been holding onto their National League East lead over the Phils, as they have been pulling more tricks toward victories - especially at home - than a seasoned magician.
The Braves' pitching staff has been the key to their success, having posted a 2,90 ERA since the All-Star break. The Braves' ERA ranks second in the majors all season behind San Diego.
"This is a time where we have to get serious," said catcher and Northampton native Brian Schneider, who is in his first pennant race and well aware of the stretch ahead. "We can still have fun and this is a great clubhouse, but we all realize what is at stake for us in the coming weeks.
"We all know that this series (Giants) is special because of the wild card, but every game is going to be big for us."
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. already has been to the top of baseball's mountain and he doesn't want to slide back down anytime soon. He and the rest of the club are well aware of the Braves and the implications of the ensuing weeks.
The Phils have two series left with Atlanta, one in Philadelphia in late September and the other in Atlanta to close the regular season (Oct. 1-3). Home field can be very effective for both teams as the Phils are 37-19 at Citizen's Bank Park while the Braves are a league-best 43-16 in their own ballpark.
'Our goal all along has been to win the division," said Amaro to the media before last night's game. "It great to have Chase (Utley) back and we should have Ryan (Howard) back soon.
"We want to be the best team in our division and move on from there. We also will do what we have to do to get there. This is a key time for us and we're all aware of it.
(Atlanta) is playing well and they will be a challenge."
"Right now, I'm not even thinking about the wild card," added manager Charlie Manuel said. "I've got my focus on the division. If we go out and we play our game, things will take care of themselves."