Inside the Phillies: Phillies still believe in this season
The deficit is not at all intimidating.
The deficit is not at all intimidating.
Five and half games in the middle of May is nothing for a team that believes it is capable of an extended streak of good baseball and the Phillies, as bad as things have been, still believe they have that ability.
Why shouldn't they?
The core, albeit not entirely healthy, remains from the team that overcame a seven-game deficit to the New York Mets with 17 to play in 2007. Three years later, the Phillies were seven games behind the Atlanta Braves on July 22, 2010, and won the division going away.
This team has a much better starting rotation than both of those teams, especially with Joe Blanton in the midst of the best streak of his Phillies career, one that continued Monday night when he covered seven innings and allowed just one run in a rain-soaked 5-1 win over the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park.
"We've proved over and over again that we can catch somebody," manager Charlie Manuel said.
That's true, but these Phillies are going to have to prove it again and in an entirely different fashion than they ever have before.
Obviously they are trying to overcome the extended absences of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and that will not happen unless the bullpen drastically improves. Manuel admitted that the bullpen is his biggest concern, but he couldn't do so without adding that the offense needs to be more consistent.
The trio of Antonio Bastardo, Chad Qualls and Jonathan Papelbon had no problem taking care of the final six outs against the Astros, and if that trend continues the bullpen numbers will rapidly improve. It will also help if Blanton and the other starters keep eating up innings the way they have the last two seasons.
Manuel made a lot of unsolicited references to approach before Monday's game but denied he was unhappy with the way his players are going about their business.
"You got to really, really stay focused on what you're doing, and you've got to really love the game," Manuel said. "There are a lot of distractions, and it is a long season, and you have to be tough. You have to be mentally tough. It's hard to explain."
Like good chemistry, it is difficult to quantify mental toughness, but we've seen enough of it from the Phillies in recent years to know what the manager is talking about. This team won more than its share of games it probably should not have won over the last five years, and many of those victories came in the pressure-packed world of the postseason.
We have seen signs of mental toughness from this team, too.
Carlos Ruiz has shown it all year, playing the best baseball of his career when he has been needed most. He continued to do so Monday night, delivering an RBI single during a two-run sixth inning.
Recently, the trio of Placido Polanco, Freddy Galvis and John Mayberry have also stepped up and overcome miserable starts. They're playing well enough now that Manuel wants to put their names in the lineup on a regular basis.
Galvis contributed two RBI singles and three hits to the Phillies' second straight victory and is hitting .300 this month after batting .191 through April. Mayberry, by reaching base on an error and a double off the left-field wall, was in the middle of the action when the Phillies scored in the fifth and sixth innings, and he later added a single to boost his May average to .306.
Polanco provided the night's best moment and a nice cushion for closer Jonathan Papelbon with his 2000th career hit in the bottom of the eighth, a two-run home run off reliever David Carpenter. He is hitting .327 this month and .281 overall. His first home run of the season was his fifth extra-base hit of the month. He had 13 extra-base hits in the previous six months.
The crowd showed its appreciation with a standing ovation that Polanco answered with a curtain call.
Manuel was happy with all the offense. Predictably, he wants to see more.
"Tonight's really great," Manuel said. "In a few minutes when I take a shower, it's kind of over with. You got to keep going. They played one night. This is a season, man. Consistency."
The one thing that should make the Phillies feel more uncomfortable than they have in the past is the fact that this is not the same National League East they have dominated.
Every team in the division is improved. The Phillies (17-19) are the only team below .500. The other four teams all have flaws or injury issues of their own, but it's not inconceivable to think that one of them might be able to go on the kind of run that buries the rest of the division.
"They have all gotten better," Phillies catcher Brian Schneider said. "You can't look at it any other way. I think there's no doubt the division has gotten better, but this team is capable of so much."
You can't fault the Phillies for believing that.