LOS ANGELES - The numbers suggest that the Phillies' recent four-game swing through Dodgers Stadium was a rousing success. But as helpful as numbers can be in quantifying the game of baseball, you cannot always adhere to their suggestions.
The Phillies limited a Dodgers team that entered the series ranked atop the National League in both scoring and hitting to nine runs in four games (average: 2.25) and 32 hits in 140 at-bats (average: .229).
They trailed in only five of the 39 innings played between the teams and got a complete-game shutout from their staff ace and another victory from a 23-year-old lefthander appearing in only his fourth game at any level above Double A.
Yet as Charlie Manuel sat in an office at Dodger Stadium late Sunday night, he spoke like a man unfulfilled.
"I look at it as we could've done more than that," the Phillies manager said.
Rarely has a split of a road series against a team with the best overall and home records in baseball felt so, well, half-empty.
Despite having won eight of their last 10 games and 17 of their last 23, the Phillies enter tonight's start of a three-game series at New York's Citi Field looking to vanquish thoughts of what very easily could have been a five-game lead over their chief rival in the National League East.
But Manuel's strong suit over the past couple of years has been his ability to keep his team from dwelling on objects in the rearview mirror - negative and positive - and focusing on the double line in front. And while his candid assessment of the Dodgers series confirms that fans back home weren't the only ones stewing in frustration as the Phillies left 33 men on base and blew two ninth-inning leads, the old-school manager just as quickly slipped back into the bland, yet essential practice of preaching one day at a time.
Which brings us to tonight, when the Phillies attempt to build on an NL East lead that sits at three games. It is the largest lead at this point in the season that the Phillies have enjoyed in any of Manuel's four-plus seasons as manager. But it is neither big enough nor tight enough for this series to have definite ramifications on either team's playoff aspirations. Heading into a four-game series against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park last July 4, the Phillies led the Mets by 3 1/2 games, only to lose three out of four. Yet there was still more than enough time for them to fall out of and move into first place eight times over the course of the rest of the season.
"It's June," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "I mean, you want to try to get as many games [up] as possible, but you take what's dealt at that point in time."
There was an interesting irony in this Mets-Phillies rivalry last season. As much newsprint and air time that was devoted to the supposedly festering feud between the teams, the actual outcome of the head-to-head matchups proved to be a poor indication of how the division ultimately shook out. Of the six series between the two, the Phillies won only one, lost four and split a two-game series at Citizens Bank Park.
"We're just going out there playing baseball," Howard said. "Whether you are up three games or whether you are down three games. We've still got another 4 or 5 months to go. Basically, you've just got to keep grinding it out, because there are going to be hot streaks and cold streaks when teams are playing. You just try to hope that by the time you hit September, everything is the way you want it to be."
It's a sentiment that sounds suspiciously like the one that floats out of the manager's office on a routine basis.
"What do I tell you about playing? We play one day at a time," Manuel said. "But I don't like us to get behind. We don't want to get there. But if we got there, we'd just have to keep playing. I'd like to see us get a bigger lead. I would never feel real big until we had a double-digit lead or something like that."
A three-game lead is nice. A five-game lead would have been nicer.
Either way, the Phillies are traveling to New York to face the Mets tonight. And for now, that seems to be their focus. *