Saturday, August 22, 2009

Phillies Still the Best Team in Baseball?

While attending a Phillies/Marlins game earlier this season, my friend and I couldn't help but notice the absence of any weak spot in the Phillies lineup. The game we attended was the second game of the first series following this year's All-Star Game that saw five Phillies make the trip to St. Louis, so it shouldn't have been much of a surprise to witness firsthand what Philadelphia had to offer. This was even before the addition of Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, when Philadelphia's pitching was nothing to scream about.

As each Phillies batter stepped up to the plate, the big screen showed their season stats. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were no surprise, even Jimmy Rollins' solid numbers did not surprise me; but Jason Werth, Raul Ibanez and co.? I knew they were all-stars, but had no idea they were playing so well. Looking past the pitcher and whoever is setting up behind the plate, pitching against the Phillies is a complete nightmare for opposing pitchers. In the game we attended, Howard was even able to get past that ridiculous shift opposing teams put on every time he steps up to the plate.

With Phillies fans outnumbering Marlins fans at Landshark Stadium in Miami, it seemed an odd time to bring in Santa Clause for a Christmas in July celebration, but the old guy cruised around the warning track and around the infield anyway. The game was delayed when a South Florida evening thunderstorm moved in, and, having experienced these before, my friend and I decided to leave. The game would eventually resume and the Phillies went on to win 6-5 in the 12th inning.

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I already knew the Phillies were a terrific ballclub (they're the defending World Series Champs!), but sitting at that game in the upper deck behind home plate with the winds gusting and a nasty cloud threatening for virtually the entire game until finally letting loose, I started to doubt that any opposing team in the National League, even the mighty Dodgers, could take down this Phillies team. This year's Phillies already have a year's successful playoff run under their belt and the confidence that comes from winning the World Series.

Boasting a 69-50 record, the Phillies own the second best win percentage in the National League (.580) and are equal to the Dodgers (.593) in the loss column with 50. Four Phillies are among the top 20 Major League leaders in homeruns (Ryan Howard, 32, Jason Werth, 28, Raul Ibanez, 27 and chase Utley, 25). Jimmy Rollins has 15, making that five Phillies hitting double digit homeruns so far this season. Pedro Feliz and Shane Victorino have 9 homeruns each.

The weak spot on the Phillies roster was their pitching staff, but the addition of Cliff Lee has helped to quell many critics. Pedro Martinez, with only two starts and eight innings pitched this season mind you, hopes to fill the fifth spot in the rotation, sending the struggling Jamie Moyer to the pen. The return of Brett Myers, who pitched well in a one inning rehab start in the minors on Thursday, could mean help is on the way for the Phillies bullpen. Myers has been out since June with a hip injury.

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Normally a starter, Myers could work out of the bullpen for the Phillies to help bolster a banged up bullpen pitching staff that has been less than remarkable since losing J.C. Romero and Clay Condrey to injury. Myers was the Phillies closer in 2007, a role current closer Brad Lidge has had difficulty with this season.

As for the Phillies' strongest opposition in their division, the Marlins have been hot of late, winning three of their last four series and going on an historic streak of 15 consecutive games with at least 10 hits. Entering play on Saturday, the Marlins sit 5.5 games behind the Phillies for first place in the NL East. They'll have two more series against the Phillies (including the final season series in October) and more than a month to catch their division rivals before the postseason begins.

Besides being swept at the hands of the Marlins earlier this month, the Phillies have lost none of the momentum they carried into the All Star break. They even won two of three against St. Louis, their strongest opponent in the NL, decisively defeating the Cardinals 14-6 and 9-2 after dropping the first game of the series.

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With the addition of Matt Holiday and the continued excellence of Albert Pujols, the Cardinals look like the Phillies' biggest roadblock in the postseason. Even with an MLB leading .593 winning percentage, the Dodgers have been less than impressive since the break. They've lost some of their thunder from earlier in the season, even with the return of Manny Ramirez.

For the Phillies, and for every team vying for a playoff run, the next month is critical. With things tight in the NL East and the Marlins and Braves refusing to go away, the Phillies must take care of business in their division before looking ahead to the Cardinals and Dodgers in October.

With the Marlins and Braves looming, four series left against Florida and Atlanta, and their last series of the season coming against Florida at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the Phillies have a long way to go before they can focus on defending their title in October. It's no easy task, but with their incredible lineup and improved pitching staff, they have the tools to close out the season strong and make a rare run at a second consecutive World Series title.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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