NEW YORK - Before they departed, suitcases bulging, for a trip that would consume 11 days, require them to cross the continent twice and check in and out of hotels three times, the Phillies mixed bravado with just a whiff of trepidation.
They had just learned they had lost righthander Brett Myers for the season. And they were about to embark on a journey that was fraught with the unknown. In San Diego, they would encounter a team that had been on a bit of a hot streak. In Los Angeles, the team with baseball's best record. In New York, the division rival Mets awaited. Adding to the degree of difficulty: Each of the teams possessed an excellent home record.
Even veteran lefthander Jamie Moyer, who's been-there-done-that in a professional career that has spanned a full quarter of a century, suggested that this booby-trapped bloc of games could reveal "a little what we're made of."
That challenge ended last night. The Phillies went 7-3 on the trip after Raul Ibanez' 10th-inning home run lifted them to a 6-3 win over the Mets at Citi Field. Only a hopeless cynic would focus on the fact that they might have done even better had Brad Lidge not blown two saves against the Dodgers, lapses that helped land him on the disabled list.
Manager Charlie Manuel, who had uncharacteristically labeled the trip "huge" before it started, pronounced himself satisfied.
"Overall, we had a pretty good road trip," he said.
The thing is, though, that a baseball season often resembles finals week. You no sooner finish with one test when you're confronted with another.
And so it is with the Phillies. They bused home from Citi Field last night, arriving in the early hours of this morning. They'll have to turn right around and play their first home game of the month tonight. And that just happens to coincide with the beginning of the second round of interleague play.
Understand this: When it comes to playing American League teams, June has usually been the cruelest month for the Phillies. Over the last three seasons plus the weekend series at the new Yankee Stadium earlier this year, their interleague record is 19-32.
And it's not just any team that will greet them. It's the Boston Red Sox, the team with the best record in the opposite league.
What has happened over the last week-and-a-half can't hurt as the Phillies contemplate their next hurdle, though.
"It was big," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "I looked at it as a difficult trip. It was definitely a test to see where we stand at this point in time. And we weren't intimidated by any stretch."
He paused and smiled. "When we left we were in first place," he said. "If we came home not in first place, we knew it wasn't going to be a pleasant place to be."
In fact, when the Phillies last tasted home cooking, they had a half-game lead in the National League East. When they emerged from this obstacle course, the cushion was up to a full four games.
Still, it's not going to get any easier.
The Red Sox are that rarest of teams, one with too much starting pitching. With John Smoltz expected to come off the disabled list next Tuesday and Clay Buchholz seemingly well past his due date for promotion at Triple A Pawtucket, the Sawx have some difficult decisions looming. And they also have been on a roll, coming in after sweeping the Yankees, their ancient archrivals.
Sunday will be interesting. That's Josh Beckett's day to pitch. And after a slow start, he has been dominant lately. In his last five starts he's 4-1 with an 0.76 earned run average, allowing 15 hits in 35 2/3 innings. One scout told the Boston Globe that Beckett looks as though he has regained his confidence "and that's not good news for the rest of the [American] League."
Ain't a walk in the park for the NL, either . . .
The competitive Toronto Blue Jays follow Boston into town. Before the month is over, the Phillies will also play the defending American League champion Rays in a rematch of last October's World Series, the Jays again and the rebuilding Orioles.
"It's pro ball," Moyer said. "Interleague play is always tough and this year we play the AL East. It's a challenge, but a good challenge because it kind of tells you where you are. It's still June, but every game means something. Every game counts."
It's somehow fitting that Moyer, who had set up these games as some sort of team X-ray, started last night. He didn't figure in the decision but pitched six solid innings, continuing to show signs of recovering from his early season doldrums.
So what does he now think this club is made of?
"I've been on a lot of teams that came back from trips that started on the West Coast 3-7," Moyer said. "We came back in some games. For the most part, this team is pretty calm. We have a lot of confidence in each other."*