WITH EACH victory and each game they move up in the National League East standings, the pressure on the Phillies will only grow. It is counterintuitive, but true.
As we all gather to bask in what looks as if it has a chance to be a basking kind of baseball summer, the Phillies will be tugged in two directions. One way, there will be the pull of now: sultry nights, cold beers and bombs bursting in the leftfield flower beds; people-watching and scoreboard-watching and the 7-day drumbeat of runs, wins and tremors.
The other way, the other pull, will be about the postseason, about what might be. It will be the revolution of rising expectations, writ daily in the standings. The greater the accomplishments of today, the greater the hopes for tomorrow - and the greater the demands that everything possible be done to realize those hopes.
So the pressure will grow, win by win.
Around here, there can be no other way.
"I don't believe it's different," said David Montgomery, the Phillies' president. "The goal is always to improve the club. But I will say this: Shame on us if we sit back and say, 'Everything is going fine. There's no area where we can improve.' That isn't the nature of this business. That isn't the nature of the general manager [Pat Gillick] we have. He's always looking, always challenging everyone in the organization, scouts, everyone.
"You can't stand still," Montgomery said.
It would be fair to say that the club president thought this conversation might be just a little bit premature. He is thrilled, on the one hand, the words tumbling forth, the praise for manager Charlie Manuel and Chase Utley and Shane Victorino and the bullpen and the bench and, well, "I really don't want to get into names, because I'll leave somebody out. It's a long list."
But Montgomery also has spent a professional lifetime working for this baseball team. And when it was pointed out that everyone expects a three-car pileup among the Phils, Braves and Mets, a demolition derby to October, he said, "It could still end up being there."
"We're in the midst of a great 20-game stretch," Montgomery said. "You hate to talk in cliches, so forgive me. But this is true: You're never as good as you are when you're going good, and
you're never as bad as you are when you're going bad.
"We haven't lost more than three games in a row so far. That doesn't happen in 162 games. But we're pleased to be in a position that's been a little foreign to us."
Yeah, like Uzbekistan.
Here the Phillies are, though, front-running just a little bit in mid-June. They are looking at a very tough month ahead of them, schedulewise. The time for this discussion probably is when that stretch is over.
But if the Phils continue to play well and have built on their lead by this time next month, a new set of expectations will really begin to take over. The talk will be about October, even as the team plays them (all together now) one game at a time. The talk will be about the postseason, and almost certainly about acquiring another starting pitcher.
And you wonder how the conversations will go in the offices at Citizens Bank Park. They have been through trading deadlines before, when they were trying only to survive, to patch a bullpen in tatters with the hope of hanging on, to acquire a Turk Wendell or a Todd Jones and to pray.
They almost always add to the payroll at the deadline - the sell-off in 2006 being the exception - but will they take a bigger plunge if they sense a real shot at this thing? They talk about building an organization and keying on player development, but will they overpay with a prospect in exchange for an arm for today?
And don't they have to think that way? Is that not the imperative - shouted by the emotion-stoked fans, yes, but also the smart baseball imperative - when you are front-running in mid-July?
"It's a situational analysis," Montgomery said. "We might be in a place where we're trying to improve a position instead of filling a need."
Which means exactly, what? None of us can know, not yet. It is still too early. The only certainty is that, if the Phils continue to gallop in mid-July, the expectations will only grow stronger.
And so will the heat. *
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