NEW YORK - The Phillies did not look like a championship team. It was July 24, 2008, at Shea Stadium, and the Phils had lost, 3-1, to the Mets, falling out of first place in the National League East.
Though they trailed in their division by only a half-game, morale was low. Jimmy Rollins had arrived to the game late and was benched, angering his manager and starter Jamie Moyer.
Charlie Manuel sat in his office, speaking quietly. "Something is not in tune," he said. "We need to pick it up. We're not . . . I don't know if it's hungry enough. I haven't put my finger on it yet."
On that day, the division seemed ready for Mets domination, just as the Phils are the best team in their division now. Needless to say, events unfolded differently last year. The point is: The season is long. Pennant races need time to unfold. A team that appears down in the summer can rise in the fall. But as the Phillies (33-22) begin a three-game series against New York tonight, they are a better team than their rival.
The year has been difficult so far for the Mets (30-25), who have endured injuries and inconsistency, and are now three games behind the Phillies. What has been wrong with the Mets so far this year? A few key elements:
No Carlos Delgado. On June 27 last year, the Mets first baseman was batting .235 and his team was 38-40. Mets fans booed loudly at every Delgado at-bat, believing that the onetime star was shot. On that day, Delgado hit two home runs in a win at Yankee Stadium and rediscovered his power after that. He finished the season batting .271, with 38 home runs and 115 runs batted in.
Delgado's resurgence was crucial to the Mets last year, lifting them into serious contention until the last day of the season. Now he is out for months with a hip injury, and the Mets miss the player who carried them last summer.
Bullpen fix sidetracked. The Mets blew 29 saves last season, allowing the Phillies to slip into first place and remain there. General manager Omar Minaya tried aggressively to address the problem during the off-season, signing free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez and trading for Seattle closer J.J. Putz to pitch the eighth innings. Rodriguez has been excellent. But last week, after a series of awful outings, Putz decided to undergo elbow surgery that will sideline him for up to three months.
Wright's home anxiety. David Wright is one of the best young players in baseball, but his urge to lead the Mets and please Citi Field crowds can affect his performance. After experiencing two straight September collapses, Wright admitted in a January interview that his desire at times can be self-defeating.
"You're not going to come through every time," he said. "You've got to be cool; it's just another at-bat, see it and hit it. But it's the pressure you put on yourself that makes you more tense. Your heart starts beating a little heavy, your blood starts flowing quicker.
"I get awestruck, and you don't have time to get awestruck."
Wright is having a good season, batting .345 with three homers, but his home/road splits are striking: He is batting .271 at Citi Field - where he has heard boos this season - and .413 on the road.
Reyes battles injury. Rollins has struggled for most of the season, but at least he is still on the field. Last week, the Mets lost spark-plug shortstop Jose Reyes for at least three weeks with a hamstring injury.
Beltran "embarrassed." Not a positive indicator of team morale, and not a sentiment one would hear in the Phillies' locker room this year. After the Mets were swept last week by the fifth-place Pirates, typically reserved centerfielder Carlos Beltran spoke up.
"Coming here to Pittsburgh and getting swept, me, I feel embarrassed," Beltran said, according to the New York Daily News. "I don't think it's fun. I think we should find a way to play better and to focus more on what we need to accomplish. . . . I mean, we have to take this personally."
Of course, the Phillies have their issues, too. The closer and leadoff man are particular concerns. And they could yet develop problems more serious and find their season derailed. They know that today's standings will be forgotten by September. The standings don't matter "because it's June," Ryan Howard said Sunday. "It's way too early."
He is right. It's too early to know how the summer will end. But the Phillies, despite their own issues, can feel better about their spring.
Raul Ibanez, who had been in sixth place among National League outfielders in all-star voting and moved to second last week, had surged to first in the totals released yesterday. Rollins is first among shortstops and Chase Utley is the top vote-getter at second base. Howard trails only St. Louis' Albert Pujols at first base. The game will be played July 14 in St. Louis; starters will be announced July 5.