EIGHT UP with 34 left to play. It is a comfortable place for the Phillies to be as August melts into September, as comfortable a place as they have known since 1993. There is no obvious pursuer in the National League East and no sign that they are preparing to fade. The defending world champions are on a pace to win 95 games.

Between now and the finish, closer Brad Lidge matters, for sure. But other than that, you wonder. In a supremely confident clubhouse, you wonder exactly what could knock this thing off its axis.

What would a cold September mean, for example?

If it were to happen, would it mean anything?

The manager says it would not.

"We're a veteran team and we know how to play," Charlie Manuel said. "I'm very open to saying that I do think we are the best team in our division and that we should win our division. And the reason I say that is we know how to play and we have an idea on how good that we are. It's up to us to go win.

"If we don't finish strong, or something like that, I would look at it like we've got a veteran team and [that] when it's time for us to play, we'll be ready."

This is just one more byproduct of winning last season. This is a team that knows its capabilities. Fans don't like to relax because, well, they don't - but if there is anything that this Phillies team has shown over the past couple of years, it is the ability to answer the bell.

There are fallow stretches sometimes. There can be a maddening inconsistency in their offensive approach sometimes; Manuel has taken to harping lately on the Phillies' hitting with runners in scoring position, but it seems like it's just to have something to talk about.

But there is little doubt that they will give you what they have in October - and that is true, whatever September brings.

As Manuel said, "That's how I kind of see our team on a day-to-day basis."

There is no magic formula where September predicts October. Go back through the last 10 major league postseasons and this is how it shakes out for the teams that make it to the World Series:

Eleven had red-hot Septembers.

Five had solid Septembers.

Four had lousy Septembers.

"I think coming in hot definitely plays a big role at times," Manuel said, but the results really are all over the lot. Last year, for instance, Tampa Bay was 13-14 in September and still got through two rounds in the American League playoffs to make it to the World Series.

But the thing is, there really are no signs of a downturn. The starting pitching has been excellent for weeks now, and that still means everything. Since Aug. 11, the Phillies have the second-lowest team ERA in the major leagues at 2.75 (trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers). If you are looking for an October predicter, September ERA tends to be a pretty good one - and the Phillies have built a great foundation there.

Meanwhile, at the plate, two of the big offensive keys - Ryan Howard and Chase Utley - are officially on fire. Howard has 11 homers and 29 RBI in his last 17 games. Utley, who homered last night against the Braves, is hitting .381 with six homers and 12 RBI over his last 17 games.

The thing is just humming along, even as they continue to strand runners. Now, for the second straight game, a rested Lidge has gotten the save. He remains the issue that everyone will watch, true enough, but the rest of this is building nicely.

There is every reason to believe that they will be able to arrange their starting pitching for the postseason however they want to arrange it - easily their top priority coming up. The latest betting odds make them a 9-5 favorite to win the National League pennant and make it back to the World Series, just a hair better than the St. Louis Cardinals at 2-1.

"I think when we're playing right we can do a lot of things," Manuel said. "That's why I get upset sometimes that we don't knock our runs in because I think that if we want to slug, we can slug with people. I think

we've proved we can play in tight games. I think we can play in big situations in a game. If not anything else, we should have proved that to ourselves."

And to the rest of us.

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