CINCINNATI - It's September and the Phillies are playing their best baseball of the season.
In any one of the last five summers, that would have been the ideal scenario as the team gathered positive mojo with an eye on the playoffs. But following a road trip that saw the Phils take two of three each from a pair of potential playoff teams, capped with Wednesday's 6-2 win over the Reds, the Phillies are left examining the what-ifs.
What if the Phillies had gotten the final three outs with a three-run lead in the ninth inning at Atlanta on Sunday? What if the umpiring crew had correctly ruled Nate Schierholtz' line drive to a center a single in an eventual one-run loss at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday?
What if the Phils had been healthy and playing this well a month ago?
"What did you say, 'What if?' " Charlie Manuel said with a chuckle when reminded of how close his team was to collecting back-to-back sweeps in Atlanta and Cincinnati.
Instead, it's a too-little, too-late reality for Manuel and Co.
Even though they could be returning home to Philly riding a seven-game winning streak, the Phils still have won five of their last seven and nine of their last 13. But they also are five games under .500 at 66-71 and were 8 1/2 games back of a crowded National League wild-card race at the conclusion of Wednesday's matinee.
The most telling number, however, is the number of games that remain. Even as the Phils gain momentum in September, there are just 25 games left on their schedule, meaning the improbable is inching closer to impossible in their last-ditch effort to resurrect a lost season.
"We're playing better than we have been in the last couple weeks, the last 2 or 3 weeks," Manuel said, "especially when we have clean games and we're catching the ball, we pitch . . . and get enough hitting at the right time."
"We've played some pretty good teams in July and August, especially August," Roy Halladay said of winning three series in the last 2 weeks against the likes of Cincinnati, Atlanta and Washington, all probable playoff teams. "We come into series against good teams like this and feel like we have a shot to win the series. Early in the year, that wasn't so much the case."
No matter how well they play in the final 4 weeks, the Phils can't erase what happened in the first 3 months. With that said, there were at least a handful of signs that bode well for 2013.
Mired in an 0-for-19 slump, Domonic Brown helped fuel a four-run second inning when he ripped a run-scoring, opposite-field single to left. Catcher Erik Kratz continued to make a case to join Brown on the 2013 roster when he followed by launching a three-run homer that gave Halladay and the Phils a 4-0 lead.
Kratz has six home runs and 18 RBI in 24 starts since Carlos Ruiz was placed on the disabled list.
"We need run producers," Manuel said, "and Kratz has been doing that."
Halladay, meanwhile, rebounded from an off-kilter start in Atlanta when he took the mound sick, by holding the Reds to one run in 7 1/3 innings. The two-time Cy Young winner has had a mix bag of results since returning from the DL after the All-Star break.
Halladay entered Wednesday with a 4.06 ERA since returning from a 2-month layoff with a right late injury. But he also has allowed three or fewer runs in seven of his last 10 starts.
"When you talk to him, he just isn't quite there yet," Manuel said. "But he's definitely getting there."
After Halladay's work was finished after 104 pitches in the eighth inning, Antonio Bastardo retired both batters he faced before turning the ball over to Jonathan Papelbon. Bastardo hasn't allowed a run in seven straight appearances, looking once again like a reliable eighth-inning option.
Bastardo and the rest of the Phils pitchers had plenty of room for error, however.
An inning after Kratz' three-run homer, Chase Utley put the game out of reach, at least with Halladay dealing, when he launched a two-run homer to center. Utley is one shy of matching last year's home-run total. Utley has 10 in 215 at-bats this season. Last year, he hit a career-low 11 in 398 at-bats.
"He shows you his power is still there," Manuel said.
Utley's home run Wednesday was just his second in his last 24 games. Beginning with a home run in his first at-bat of the season on June 27, Utley had homered in eight of his first 34 games.
"He finally hit one to center," Manuel said. "He's hit three or four balls hard to center in the last week that were caught right in front of the fence. He finally got one over today . . . Chase has been hitting into some tough luck."
Lady luck might finally be smiling on Utley and the Phillies. But it might not matter with the ticking clock that is the remainder of the 2012 schedule.