Here in the universe of the new Phillies normal, the first six games of the season at Citizens Bank Park were more than acceptable. You could even call them a success if you're willing to grade on a curve, which the Phillies and their manager seemed willing to do after Sunday's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Washington Nationals.

"I liked the fight in the guys," Sandberg said before his team boarded a bus to New York with a 3-3 record. "We had a chance to win all but opening day. That's a good sign. And the guys have fought back to win some games. The energy is there. The fight is there."

In the good, old days (2007-11) when the wins came in bunches and the crowds filled the ballpark to the brim, a .500 homestand would have been considered a major disappointment, if not a complete failure.

Back then, an 0-for-4 performance with four strikeouts by Ryan Howard would have also been a major cause for concern. Now, it's barely a minor one. Does anybody really believe Howard is going to be around when a .500 homestand becomes unacceptable again? Howard knows how unlikely that scenario is, too. Perhaps that's why he was comfortable with leaving the clubhouse without having a detailed conversation about the 26th time in his career he struck out four times in a game.

Six of the 10 men left on base by the Phillies came with Howard at the plate.

"All I can say is tough game," Howard said as he headed for the exit. "That's all I've got today."

He could have said more, but what difference does it make? Dissecting his swing is now way down on the Phillies' to-do list. Far more important are the development of young players and the adaptation of a different attitude inside the clubhouse. In that respect, this first week went pretty well.

The Phillies rallied twice from late-game deficits to pull out victories against a Washington team that is the overwhelming favorite to win the National League East. The positive vibes were unique for some of the younger players when rookie Odubel Herrera delivered a walk-off double for his first major-league hit Saturday night.

"There was an energy in the clubhouse that I haven't felt since I've been here for the most part," Darin Ruf said. "It's nice to get not necessarily off to the best start at 3-3, but we've played well these past three games. Better than people thought, so we'll try to take that into next week."

There is a caveat to winning the series with the Nationals. Washington played all three games without two of its best hitters - third baseman Anthony Rendon and former Phillie Jayson Werth. Put those two in the middle of the Nationals' lineup and they are a different team.

That said, Sunday's loss was not an awful one considering the circumstances. The Nats sent their $210 million free-agent addition Max Scherzer to the mound for the series finale while the Phillies countered with 27-year-old journeyman Sean O'Sullivan.

Here in the universe of the new Phillies normal, it could be argued that O'Sullivan's work was more important than Howard's performance. Teams sometimes find gold in strange places - see Ryan Vogelsong in San Francisco and Werth with the Phillies - and, if nothing else, O'Sullivan gave Sandberg a reason to send him back to the mound in five days. He allowed just two runs in six innings and left with his team trailing, 2-0.

The Phillies, meanwhile, made Scherzer work hard enough that he needed to throw 102 pitches to get through six innings. When Ruf tied the game in the seventh with a long solo home run off reliever Xavier Cedeno, there was a feeling in the home dugout that maybe the Phillies could pull off a surprising sweep.

"I think we have a lot of grinders in here and a lot of people who have the belief that it doesn't take the biggest payroll in the world to win," reliever Justin DeFratus said.

What it would have taken Sunday was some better relief work from DeFratus, whose first pitch of the afternoon bounced away from catcher Cameron Rupp, allowing Yunel Escobar to score the go-ahead run with one out in the top of the 10th inning. DeFratus could have lived with that mistake if he had not allowed a second run on a two-out Clint Robinson double that was followed by Wilson Ramos' RBI single.

"That one probably hurt the worst because now . . . that game falls on me," DeFratus said.

The extra Nats run in the 10th made Herrera's second late-inning RBI hit in as many nights in the bottom of the 10th a lot less significant than the one he had Saturday, but overall everybody seemed pleased with the 3-3 start.

Maybe they had seen that Maikel Franco had three hits and two RBIs in triple-A Lehigh Valley's wild 16-inning win over Pawtucket or that Zach Eflin followed up five shutout innings by Jesse Biddle for double-A Reading Saturday with six shutout innings of his own Sunday in Portland, Maine.

Here in the universe of the new Phillies normal, these are the kind of things that matter most.

Howard's Golden Sombreros

Ryan Howard struck out four times in a game for the 26th time in his career Sunday

Here's a look at his four-strikeout games:

5-23-06: at N.Y. Mets, 0 for 4 with two walks and an RBI

7-2-06: at Toronto, 1 for 6 with HR and RBI

8-14-06: N.Y. Mets, 1 for 5

8-21-06: at Chicago Cubs, 0 for 5

5-3-07: at San Francisco, 0 for 5 with a walk

6-10-07: at Kansas City, 1 for 5 with a HR and two RBIs

6-26-07: Cincinnati, 1 for 5 with a HR and two RBIs

8-1-07: at Chicago Cubs, 1 for 5 with an RBI

9-22-07: at Washington, 1 for 5 with an RBI

6-17-08: Boston, 0 for 4

7-6-08: N.Y. Mets, 1 for 6

4-17-09: San Diego, 1 for 5

6-1-09: at San Diego, 1 for 5

6-12-09: Boston, 1 for 6

7-21-09: Chicago Cubs, 0 for 4 with two walks

7-28-10: Arizona, 0 for 4 with a walk

8-24-10: Houston, 0 for 7 with five strikeouts

8-27-10: at San Diego, 1 for 5 with a walk

4-21-11: at San Diego, 0 for 5

4-23-11: at San Diego, 1 for 5 with two RBIs

5-11-13: at Arizona, 0 for 5

5-25-13: at Washington, 0 for 4

6-19-13: Washington, 0 for 4 with a walk

5-29-14: N.Y. Mets, 0 for 4

9-25-14: at Miami, 0 for 4

4-12-15: Washington, 0 for 4

- Bob Brookover

Source: BaseballReference.com

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