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Bill Conlin: Phillies need more than average Joe Blanton

WE HAVE had the obligatory first-half report cards. Then the Home Run Derby main event followed by an All-Star Game that only an insomniac remembers.

WE HAVE had the obligatory first-half report cards. Then the Home Run Derby main event followed by an All-Star Game that only an insomniac remembers.

So here we are on July 18, ready to look ahead to major league baseball's second half.

Mother Nature and Father Time just have to stop meeting like this. The calendar is already screwed up enough, thanks to the Phillies having their traditional lousy April in what the calendar assured us was June and July.

And now this: A "second half" that is actually only 41 percent of the 162-game season, at least for teams, including the Phillies, that played 96 games prior to the All-Star break.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it really got late early this season.

But the Saharan sun seems a little less harsh today with Joe Blanton in the rotation. I'm not a big fan of the enormous former A's righthander. Nothing personal. But I think he uses his brute strength to overpower the baseball to the detriment of his poor mechanics. But if Joe can do a reasonable Kyle Lohse impersonation during this lopsided second half, then hats off to GM Pat Gillick. They got Blanton for nothing they will ever miss. Adrian Cardenas was blocked at second, his only certifiable position. Josh Outman is a Double A setup man and Matt Spencer is a throw-in outfielder.

If Blanton bombs, it was at the expense of very little. If he helps the Phils to the East title, Gillick is a genius.

The Phillies find themselves in the oppressive humidity and even more oppressive emptiness of Dolphin Stadium tonight, and thanks to the Mets' 10th straight victory, are in a tie for first place with the hated team from Flushing Meadows. The Marlins are tail walking a game-and-a-half back in what is now MLB's only three-team race.

Six road games against the Marlins and Mets . . . And next Wednesday, when Brett Myers is scheduled to emerge from his odyssey through Triple A, Double A and Class A with a start in Shea Stadium, the Eagles will be in training camp. And thousands will be making the daily run up the Northeast Extension to watch the NFL version of batting practice, despite gas more expensive per gallon than jug wine. It is a psychological milestone of significance, a weigh station where bandwagons are boarded and allegiances tested. If scattered chants of E-A-G-L-E-S - EAGLES! erupt at the Bank on the next homestand, you will not need the standings to inform you the Phillies are no longer in first place.

Myers is a huge piece of an unforeseen and unplanned for unraveling that has thrown a team on the cusp of an East Division runaway into a maelstrom of problems. The team that Nostradamus Rollins predicted will win 100 games is now on pace to win 88 - my gloomy forecast at the end of a spring training where Brad Lidge had not yet revealed himself as Superman.

Brett went to the hinterlands to rediscover his fastball and the confidence to throw it. Nobody seems to want to believe that Myers is no longer a power arm. He is a breaking-ball pitcher who must set up his still wicked 12-6 hammer with a two-seam, sinking fastball and the cutter that became an important arrow in his quiver last year.

His downward journey through the minors began with two starts for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Give Myers 2.5 acorns on a scale of 5. Next, he was shipped - by limo, one assumes - to Eastern League Reading, where he started against Akron. The first Double A hitter he faced since 2001, when he was 13-4 for the Phils' Double A affiliate, smoked a home run. What else was new? He was solid after that, striking out 10. Against Double A hitters, a big league Opening Day starter is supposed to be dominant.

Down and down he goes, round and round he goes . . . In a spin . . . Loving the groove he's in . . .

The Old Brett Magic will surface tonight halfway down the Florida Peninsula from his Jacksonville home. He will make his fourth and final Psy-Op start in Brevard County, home of Cape Canaveral and the Manatees, a Class A Reds farm team. Having been an IronPig and a Reading Phil, Brett will now wear a Clearwater Threshers roadie, angry shark logo and all. As were Lehigh Valley and Reading (which has climbed out of the cellar since Brett's visit), Clearwater is in last place.

And look, Pat, Ruben, Mike and Charlie, if you think Myers needs to pitch at an even lower level so he can return to The Show feeling really good about himself, I can offer him a start next week for the South Jersey semipro team I sponsor. He can have his pick of any number, as long as it is 44 - the only one we have in his size - ice in the Gatorade, wooden bats to shatter and a mound with the shin-deep landing holes packed with clay.

This Phillies team was assembled with zero tolerance for adversity. There are no expansion joints to absorb an off-year by Jimmy Rollins, major injuries or the arrows whizzed their way during the long season. With Myers away and Adam Eaton harder to watch than an Andy Reid press conference, there is no longer enough pitching to fight off the resuscitated Mets. The swagger we hate is back. Tug McGraw coined "You Gotta Believe." Suddenly, these guys appear to have enough talent to back up the slogans and body language.

The enormity of not digging a little deeper to sign Lohse has become a Himalayan backdrop with Charlie Manuel getting into the sixth inning with a lead proving more and more difficult, thanks to a lineup that is strikeout prone, speed challenged and often more clutchless than the Venus de Milo.

I'd like to send you into the second 41 percent half of the season with a hearty cheer and the same surge of optimism that impelled me to rate this flawed team better than the benchmark 1977 Phillies. And I feel a little more bullish than I did this time yesterday.

But the best I can give you - altogether now - is a Sis, Boom, Bah, Humbug. *

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