THERE ARE NIGHTS when organized sport feels like a vast conspiracy against logic, times when the obvious vanishes as soon as the opening pitch is thrown, times when everything you thought you knew disappears in a tumult of counterintuition.
Last night was not one of those nights.
Roy Halladay took the mound for the home team, lefthander John Lannan took the mound for the visiting team, and the result was exactly what you would have bet your bank account on: a 7-3 victory that featured Raul Ibanez crushing a pitcher he usually crushes, the Phillies beating a team they usually beat, and Halladay owning a lineup that he should claim as dependents.
At 21-9, their best record through 30 games since the 1993 team started 23-7, the Phillies now turn their sights to a weekend series against a Braves team that has won five in a row.
But we cannot overlook last night, as automatic as it may have seemed. Truth be told, it was not one of Halladay's finer performances against the Nationals. He did not pitch a complete game, as he had the previous two times he faced them. He did not keep them off the scoreboard, as he had in four of his previous eight outings. In fact, he looked downright human in the fourth inning, allowing hits to four of the first five batters he faced before clamping down after two runs to retire the last 11 hitters he faced.
But Halladay did strike out 10, and he did it without walking a batter, and he did pick up his ninth straight victory over Washington to extend a streak that dates back to when the franchise was in Montreal. He now boasts a 5-1 record, tied with Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia for the most victories in the National League, and a 2.19 ERA.
"He got to 75 pitches kind of quick for him," manager Charlie Manuel said, "and then he settled right in there and gave us seven strong innings."
Halladay's rough fourth inning - he said later it simply boiled down to him making bad pitches - followed a six-run third that featured a two-run homer by Shane Victorino and a two-run double by Ibanez, who entered this series hitless in 34 at-bats and finished it with eight hits in 12 at-bats. He homered for the second consecutive night, giving him five extra-base hits in the series. His two-run double in the third came against Lannan, off whom he was 10-for-18 with two homers heading into the night.
"He's got a shorter swing, a quicker bat, he's staying on the ball good," Manuel said. "He's more selective. He's relaxed. And the biggest thing is, he's getting hits."
Any reason why it took so long?
"Just trying to do less really," Ibanez said. "Just trying to stroke it and put an easy stroke on the ball. Usually it equates to more, but it's a tough concept to grasp sometimes. It's the opposite. Hitting can be counterintuitive sometimes. Sometimes you think swinging harder is better and it's not."
The Phillies haven't exactly faced the Goliaths of the NL yet, but they are beating the teams they are supposed to beat, and they are beating them at an impressive rate. Already, they have swept three series this season, including this one against Washington.
After it was over, somebody asked Halladay why he seems to have so much success against the Nationals, and the veteran righthander found a way to answer it without stating the obvious. But sometimes what you see is exactly what you get. When one of the greatest pitchers in baseball faces a lineup that features players like Alex Cora batting second and Laynce Nix batting fourth, the result usually goes something like it went last night.
Halladay is now 26-5 in 37 career games against the NL East, including 18-1 since he signed with the Phillies.
The Phillies remain hopeful that veteran righthander Joe Blanton will be able to start Monday against the Marlins. Blanton (elbow) threw a bullpen session yesterday and is scheduled to throw another tomorrow. Barring a setback, the Phillies do not think he will need to make a minor league rehab appearance . . . Ruben Amaro said he thinks righthander Vance Worley will be more valuable to the organization pitching regularly as a starter at Triple A Lehigh Valley than as a reliever in the Phillies' bullpen when Blanton is activated . . . Righthander Jose Contreras remains on his initial recovery timetable, which called for him to return in the second half of May. *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.
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