IT BEGAN ON May 9, getaway day in Arizona, with Ryan Howard's pinch-hit grand slam. Whatever you want to call it began exactly there.

From then until now, the Phillies have gone 8-3. They have gotten outrageously good starting pitching, strong (and frequent) work from closer Brett Myers, sufficient and timely hitting in the absence of the since-disabled Howard. As Adam Eaton, yesterday's starter, was saying, "Everybody's doing their part, what we saw in spring training."

And they have not gained an inch in the National League East.

It is the residue of April, the stench that even the freshest breeze has not yet been able to dissipate. The Phillies are playing fun, loose, persistent baseball right now. They have now won three consecutive series over the Cubs, Brewers and Blue Jays. There is a pleasant hum now as this thing begins to roll.

Yet the standings mock them.

"I don't think anybody's frustrated about it - nobody's said anything," manager Charlie Manuel said, after yesterday's 5-3 win over Toronto. "But you do notice it."

On the morning of May 9, the Phils were 6 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East. Yesterday morning, they were 7 1/2 games out. They are on a tear here, playing .727 baseball over 11 games, and still deep in third place behind the Mets and Braves. The crater of April has yet to be surmounted.

Everybody talked about it.

Everybody worried about it and warned about it, the memories still fresh, the memories of April stumbles past. But it happened again, right from the start of the season - 0-3, 1-6, 2-8, 3-10; deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper. And now, even though the Phillies are hot enough as to be almost incandescent, they cannot light a path out of their hole, not yet.

The Braves have cooled off a bit. The Phils will get a whack at them next weekend in Atlanta. But the Mets remain a distance away, a healthy distance. The gap is not shrinking even as the Phillies morph into the team that many people always thought they would be.

"I'm not worried about [the Mets] - we're going to play them eventually," rightfielder Shane Victorino said. "Hopefully, we'll make up some ground on them. Until then, we've just got to do what we do. We've gotten back to .500. Ultimately, we want to be division leaders.

"We've got a long way to go," he said. Victorino was talking about games to go, not games behind, but it really works either way.

The Phillies are being carried by their starting pitching right now. When you get starting pitching, everything just looks cleaner and neater. There is an orderliness to the proceedings and a constant feeling that anything is possible. So, even as their lineup, without Howard, has produced not all that many hits lately, enough runs are being scored. As more players contribute - Greg Dobbs and Abraham Nunez, to name two lately - the players really do feel as if something significant has begun.

"At the beginning of the year, everybody was saying we had to get off to a good start, everybody was harping on us, and I think guys were pressing," said centerfielder Aaron Rowand, who had two hits yesterday, including a homer, and is hitting .333.

"But as the season went along, guys started relaxing, falling into their roles, and doing what  they're capable of doing," he said.

And we can all see the results. They are weathering the Howard injury nicely so far with timely hitting; after a brutal start, their batting average with runners in scoring position is up to .259, the major league average. They are surviving a bullpen that, except for Myers, has been somewhere between messy and scary. The bullpen remains the biggest long-term issue for this summer but it has been juggled sufficiently so far.

It all adds up to eight wins in 11 games. It all adds up to a team that has finally begun to piece together the profile that most of us were expecting from the beginning.

Still, April dominates. As the Phillies work so furiously in the crater, climbing the sides, you can barely see the blue button on the top of their red caps.


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