THEY WILL play one more game, and then they will hit the road. One week later, they will return. At that point, perhaps we should have a better sense of what all of this means. For now, the important thing is that the Phillies are playing good baseball, clean baseball, the kind of baseball that prompted this city to fall back in love with the sport.
On Tuesday night, it resulted in their sixth straight victory. And their 14th in 18 games. And their 17th in 23. And their 34th in 54.
And it was notable for a couple of reasons. First, because it moved them to .500, a place they had not visited since June 4, when they were 28-28 and there was still some reason to believe that being there would not be notable 3 months later. But also because the team that they beat looked a lot like somebody that you used to know.
Not long ago, the Marlins and the Phillies were the poster children for unfulfilled potential, their records standing in stark contrast to the postseason hopes they carried into the season. On Tuesday night, though, Miami stood alone, giving away extra bases like free hugs and turning what should have been a foul pop out into an extra chance and turning that extra chance into a two-run home run that proved to be a pivotal blow.
The Phillies used to be that kind of team, bumbling so badly through June and July that Ruben Amaro Jr.'s decision to blow the thing up at the trade deadline was met without even a hint of dissent from the fan base. It wasn't just the injuries, or the shoddy bullpen, or the anemic offense; it was the absence of the brand of baseball that had defined Charlie Manuel's teams over the previous five seasons.
In recent weeks, that brand of baseball has been back, and watching this series against the Marlins has only underscored that fact. On Tuesday, the defining play came in the bottom of the sixth inning, when rookie catcher Rob Brantly dropped what should have been a routine pop-up by Jimmy Rollins. Instead, the at-bat continued, and Rollins capitalized, crushing a two-run home run to rightfield that gave the Phillies an 8-3 lead.
"We talk about there being three phases of the game, and on certain nights we wouldn't have any of them," Manuel said after the Phillies evened their record at 71-71. "No pitching, defense or hitting."
"We've been playing clean games," Manuel said.
For most of the night, the Phillies had pitching, defense and hitting. In particular, they had hitting. The top three batters in the lineup - Rollins, Juan Pierre and Chase Utley - combined to reach base 11 times, scoring five runs with five RBI. Carlos Ruiz contributed an RBI in his first start since early August. All of it was enough to make up for the continued struggles of Ryan Howard, who went 1-for-5 and left eight runners on base. And that is kind of the point. The Phillies now have the kind of weapons that can make up for the absence of Howard, the kind of weapons that play baseball like a major league team.
We are still a long way off from a playoff berth, although the Phillies continue to pick up ground in their bid for the final wild-card spot. All they can do is continue to play the right kind of baseball.
"We know we needed to clean it up in many areas,'' Rollins said. "Charlie has made that evident and we go out there everyday on the field doing our work, our extra work, making sure we play 27 outs both ways, especially on defense, not giving them more. Because we've done a lot of that, and we've given up a lot of unearned runs that have caused a lot of losses that we shouldn't have had.''
They cannot do anything about those losses except hope that they somehow do not matter in the end. The good news is, the day-to-day is once again enjoyable to watch.