PHILADELPHIA -- If it's April, you know the Philadelphia Phillies are struggling. That's as much a spring ritual as the first robin, blooming tulips and 65-degree days. You don't need a calendar. Just check the standings.
Slow starts have haunted this franchise for eons. If it weren't for patented late-season surges chasing their October dreams would be just that -- dreams.
If the Phillies had their way the season would begin May 1. Certainly never before April 15.
A year ago they lost 11 of their first 15 games before they woke up. Yet they went on to win the NL East title with 48 victories in their last 81 games, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1993. Their record (85-62) after April 20 was the best in the league.
I bring this up because as defending champions in a demanding division there's little wiggle room. They were fortunate in 2007 that the New York Mets, who led the East most of the season, collapsed in September. Philadelphia cannot count on that kind of gift this year.
Three times this spring the Phillies have been in a position to climb above .500, but failed. Oh, there have been flashes of the same energy and brilliance that propelled them to 2007's postseason.
Thursday's 10-2 matinee trampling of Houston was a fitting example. They sprinted out to a 3-0 first-inning lead, used a barrage of home runs by Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Chris Coste to put the game out of the Astros' reach. They backed Brett Myers' solid pitching with a firestorm of 16 hits, including four by Coste.
Once again the Phils can move above .500. That opportunity will come beginning Friday night when they open a three-game series against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The opener should be terrific with the Mets starting Johan Santana against the Phillies' Cole Hamels.
The weekend series could go a long way to answering some of the questions manger Charlie Manuel poses about the way his team has played this spring.
The Phillies' record is obviously better than at this time last year, but in many of their games they've had mental lapses -- maybe forgetting what it took to be division champions.
Fast stat: In 2007 only three NL teams committed fewer errors than the 89 the Phillies were charged with. Through Thursday's game they had 16, an alarming four by All-Star second baseman Utley.
"When I think about it, there's something missing," says Manuel. "It's hard to put my finger on it. We've been hustling, we've been doing the same things -- all the hard work. Nobody's complaining. It seems like we're happy, but there's something there that we've got to get going. Something's not clicking the way it should."
Manuel, behind his desk several hours before Thursday's breakout victory, stares across the room, almost as if his visitor isn't present.
"When I look back to last year, one of the biggest things I remember is how we approached the game," he finally says. "We came to the ballpark with the idea we definitely were going to win that day. We had tons of energy and lots of desire, passion and determination.
"I know it's early in the season, we're hanging around .500 and can do a lot better."
With shortstop Jimmy Rollins, reigning MVP, and center fielder Shane Victorino out with injuries the Phillies are missing speed at the top of their batting order. That's a huge part of the problem.
But even in Thursday's laugher there was some concern for Manuel. The Phillies stranded 10 runners, increasing their season total to 130, second in the NL.
"We had some mistakes today," Manuel says after the game. "We have to get better at knocking in runs with less than two outs. We left too many runners on base early."
Howard says, "we've kinda gotten the reputation of a team that comes on late. Opponents know that. With what we did last year, finally getting over the hump, teams are going to look at us differently. They're coming after us."
On the other hand, coming off winning a division makes it easier within the team. "We know what we can do," Howard says. "Once everything starts clicking for us, that momentum from last year definitely helps."
Victorino believes motivation from 2007 can work two ways -- one good, one bad.
"We're definitely not pressing or trying to do something we didn't do last year," he says. "Everything fell into place at the end and we finished the season the way we needed to. I know personally I'm not going out there thinking we've got to defend our title."
On the other hand, when it doesn't work, Victorino says, "it's natural you try harder. It's like if you don't do as well as you did last year are you putting pressure on yourself? You keep asking yourself what's the difference and that's such a fine line: Are you defending your title or going out there and being the team you were last year?"
Years ago Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, managing the Detroit Tigers, told me how difficult it is sometimes for teams to repeat, especially when they get off to slow starts.
"You suddenly find yourself trying to win two games for every game you play," he said. "You just can't play baseball that way."
"I see that with some of our hitters," he says. "We try to do too much in one at-bat. They might be thinking in certain situations, 'If I get a hit I can win the game right here.' They start trying too hard, start thinking too much, get tense and end up making an out. Already this year, I've seen that."
Manuel points to when Rollins and Victorino are healthy "we have so many different weapons on how we can come at you -- with speed, taking extra bases, manufacturing runs or bashing the ball out of the park."
Surprisingly, the skipper says pitching "has been better than I expected. You never know what you've got until you put it out there. From the start, it's been better than it was last spring and the bullpen has been effective."
"Probably that we haven't gotten off to a better start. And the fact Rollins and Victorino are out early when we could be winning more games."
But for the Phillies, it's only April. You can look it up.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.