AFTER WINNING a couple of games they needed to earlier this week, the Phillies went out and did something even more impressive.
They won a game the Braves needed a whole lot more than they did.
They are the best team in the National League right now. Nobody who's paying attention can quibble. They have won 10 straight after their 1-0 takeout slide against Atlanta last night at The Bank. In the longer view, they've won 22 out of 26. Their magic number is 4, with a week-and-a-half left to play.
And with all that, it's become pretty clear which club presents the highest hurdle between them and a third straight World Series appearance.
That, of course, would be your Fightin' Phils.
Philadelphia-born Walt Kelly created the comic strip Pogo and coined the immortal line, "We have met the enemy and he is us." He wasn't talking about this edition of the Phillies. But he could have been.
There are tangible reasons why this team was in third place, seven games out, just two games over .500 as recently as July 21. Injuries are the most notable explanation. But that doesn't sweep everything under the rug. Just remember how many times manager Charlie Manuel openly grumbled about what he perceived as complacency and a lackadaisical attitude earlier in the schedule.
Outwardly, at least, the players shrugged it all off. They said they'd be fine. And at the moment they get to say, "We told you so." Or "Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah," while sticking out their tongues and wiggling their fingers in their ears, if they prefer.
What was most impressive about last night's effort, then, was that after taking the first two games of the series against rookie pitchers they were seeing for the first time, they had taken control of the division. They already had accomplished what they needed to do. It was the Braves who were backed into a corner.
And the Phils still managed to complete the sweep. From the start to the end of what had been advertised as a division showdown, they were just a little sharper, a little tougher, a little better.
This series was well-attended by scouts. Some were making their last sweeps of the regular season. Others were beginning the meticulous process of putting together reports that will be used if their team should happen to match up against one of last night's combatants after the postseason begins in 2 weeks.
The Cincinnati Reds have been represented. So have the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. The San Francisco Giants were marked absent, but the New York Yankees checked in with triple coverage, just in case.
Along with cooler weather and earlier sunsets, it's a certain harbinger that this wasn't just another June series against the Pirates or Nationals.
The consensus is that the Phillies have established themselves as the team to beat, which ain't exactly breaking news. But it came with a few interesting caveats.
The first is that the Phillies' hitters, as good as they are, can all be pitched to. The view from the scouts' section is that they haven't seen opponents who have been making quality pitches when they need to, that they've been leaving too many pitches up and in the center of the plate and that the Phils have been knocking the whey out of those mistakes.
The presumption is that when the playoffs begin, they won't see nearly as many cookies. If they end up facing the Giants, it could be Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito. The Padres can line up Clayton Richards, Jon Garland, Mat Latos. The Reds can go with Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Travis Wood and Mike Leake. You get the picture. If they happen to see the Braves again in the NLCS, they'll face ace Tim Hudson and veteran Derek Lowe, two starters who didn't face them this week.
Another potential issue is the law of averages. The Phillies have been playing .846 ball since being beaten four straight by the Astros at home. That's not sustainable indefinitely. At some point, a losing streak is inevitable. And if it comes at just the wrong time - like, say, the best-of-five Division Series - it can be difficult to recoup before it's too late.
A related item to watch is how teams bounce back once they power down. If the Phillies clinch this weekend, manager Charlie Manuel will have a whole week to rest some of his regulars and let his starting pitchers taper down for what he hopes will be a postseason run that lasts into November. That's clearly an advantage.
There can be a down side, too, though. Winning teams have to play with a bit of an edge. Baseball teams are accustomed to playing nearly every day. A long stretch of games that don't really matter followed by a couple of days with no competition at all can be a real roadblock for momentum.
We'll see. Great starting pitching usually trumps even momentum and the Phillies certainly have that going for them. There's still a long slog ahead, but it seems pretty clear that if the Phillies don't beat themselves between now and the start of the World Series, it doesn't look like anybody else will, either.
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