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Donnellon: No longer surprising, Phillies face new challenge

They are the surprise team of the spring, but their days of sneaking up on people have come to a close. Now, and for the rest of the season, comes the Phillies' chance for a real surprise, beginning with the most basic characteristic of any successful team.

Can they take a punch?

The Phillies lost a game Monday in the same manner they have recorded 14 of their 25 wins this season: Keeping it close with gritty starting pitching, grabbing a slim, late lead, holding off their opponent in the end. This time, it was the first-place Nationals doing unto them what they have done unto others, extending the locals' losing streak to four games, something that had not occurred since their initial, inauspicious 0-4 start.

Since then, they had not lost more than two in a row before this skid, an amazing mark of consistency for a team that averages barely more than three runs per game, a team that statistically, according to, projects to 21-30, not 26-25.

That projection would place them fourth in the National League East, wedged evenly between the equally surprising Marlins and the unsalvageable Braves -- two teams that appear, when they play the Phillies, to be their equals save one notable characteristic.

Their bullpens.

Projected to be their weakest link, the Phillies' bullpen has been their most consistent strength, even after Hector Neris's eighth-inning meltdown Monday night. So much that manager Pete Mackanin, who has pressed a lot of right buttons during this surprising start, lifted starter Jeremy Hellickson after the righthander allowed only a run over 79 pitches.


You live on the margins, you die on the margins. But it is a testament to this team's grit that the comments section after last night's loss included considerable criticism of the rebuilding process that is supposed to be no more than midway through, some even pining for the return of popular veterans like Chase Utley, conveniently forgetting how useless his bat was amid the horrific pitching of the last few seasons.

The current team and its manager should be proud they have induced such "passion" so early in a season that seemed destined for 100 losses. The challenge now is to maintain that interest over the next 111 games, even on days and in weeks or in the current torrid stretch of games against playoff-caliber teams in which their perceived strengths dissipate.

It's a mental exercise as much as it is physical. And it will go a long way to determine how this season is ultimately viewed - as part of an accelerated rebuild, or simply one of baseball's many in-season anomalies.