WHILE THE Phillies finished their 10-game West Coast trip with a much-needed dose of offense, their pitching staff is still the reason they will head back to Citizens Bank Park within one game of .500.
Heading into Wednesday's 7-2 victory over the Diamondbacks, Phillies starters had pitched at least seven innings in half of their 18 games, tied with Texas and Oakland for the most in the majors. Combined, the rotation had logged 117 innings (an average of more than six per start) with a 2.84 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9. Remove Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick from the equation and the Phillies' top four starters were averaging nearly seven innings, with a 2.06 ERA.
None of that changed in the series finale at Chase Field, as Cole Hamels allowed a leadoff double and then retired 18 consecutive batters en route to a dominant, eight-inning performance. Give some credit to the bullpen, too. The new setup/closer combination of Chad Qualls and Jonathan Papelbon has combined to allow only two runs in 15 innings of work.
The question now is whether the offense can find enough consistency for the Phillies to string together a sizable winning streak.
This year, more than any since 2008, it is imperative that they have success against the National League's weaker teams; in particular, the league's weaker pitching staffs. One of those teams, and staffs, will be in town this weekend as the Cubs visit Citizens Bank Park for a four-game series that begins Friday.
The Phillies need all of the breathing room they can get as they prepare for a 2-month stretch that should offer Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro Jr. a good look at whether the current construction of the club can expect to compete in the postseason.
From May 1 until the start of the All-Star Break, 38 of the Phillies' 64 games will come against teams that entered Wednesday with winning records. And that doesn't include the Red Sox or Marlins, whom they will face nine times (although it does include early-season surprises Baltimore and the Mets).
After the Cubs comes a three-game series against the resurgent Braves - projected starters for Atlanta are Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Randall Delgado - followed by a three-game series against the NL East-leading Nationals in what should be an interesting scene in Washington.
Remember, April was supposed to be the easy part of the Phillies' schedule. Finishing the month strong is crucial given the challenges that lie ahead.