Phillies clicking with revamped rotation
Champs back to form after savvy Lee move, offensive rebirth
CHICAGO -- It does not appear that the Philadelphia Phillies will find anything of deep and abiding concern confronting them until they run into the Los Angeles Dodgers, at some point in October.
Nobody is flicking away the final 50 games of the regular season like a piece of lint off a sweater. There is obviously serious and difficult work to be done between now and the postseason. But the Phillies are now in a position in which you can safely say that they should win.
The Phillies have cured what ailed them, in a big, decisive way. They are in much, much better shape than they were 15 days ago, just before they acquired Cliff Lee. With most of the baseball world desperately seeking pitching, getting a Cy Young Award winner just before the Trade Deadline without giving away the store is a coup, a master stroke, the kind of thing that separates franchises that win championships from franchises that want to win championships.
And the Phillies' recent slump, in which they went 3-8 and scored fewer than 2.5 runs per game, appears to be a bump in the road, now in the rearview mirror. The Phillies just took three straight from the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the third and final game with a 6-1 victory on Thursday. In Chicago, the Phils did not look like a team in any sort of trouble.
What they did look like was a team with 40 percent of its rotation new and improved. The last two games of this series doubled as a showcase for the revamped rotation.
On Wednesday night, Pedro Martinez returned from seasons of aches and pains and frustrations to look like a capable Major League pitcher. There is always the question of long-term health with a pitcher at this stage of a career, a pitcher with serious injuries in his case history, but Martinez has regained much of his lost velocity and is healthier than he has been in years. His command and his knowledge of how to pitch never departed. If his body continues to comply, he'll be a valuable addition.
He is 215-99. He won three Cy Young Awards, but he should have won four. He has been truly great. Here, being genuinely good will be enough.
But Lee was the biggest pitching prize available in the Trade Deadline sweepstakes. Last year was an epic breakthrough season for him; 22-3 season with a 2.54 ERA. His overall numbers were still fine with Cleveland this season, but his 7-9 record merely indicated that he received inadequate run support.
Three starts into his Philadelphia career, Lee is 3-0. He has given up one run in each start, working to a 1.13 ERA.
"He's doing what we expect of him," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Thursday.
The Phillies may not be expecting exactly one earned run per start, but you know what the manager is saying. Consistency, command, efficiency, lots of innings pitched; all that sort of thing can safely be expected from Lee.
The left-hander worked eight innings on Thursday, giving up the usual one run, allowing six hits and striking out eight. He rebuked himself a bit for walking three batters. This is a certain sign that a pitcher is performing well and expects to perform even better. He produces a really impressive outing and then looks for ways to improve it.
As much as the Phillies needed Lee, the trade from Cleveland was a boost for the pitcher, too. He went from a team that had playoff aspirations but found itself last in the AL Central, to the defending World Series champions, once again a first-place team in the NL East.
"I enjoyed myself in Cleveland, don't get me wrong," Lee said. "But going from a team that's 10-plus games out of it, to a team that's solidly in first place, is definitely a bonus. I've enjoyed every step of it here, from the first day. Obviously, there's an adjustment period you've got to deal with, but I feel like I'm over that -- part of the team and one of the guys. My teammates made that easy on me by the way they are. It's been a smooth transition, and I'm enjoying it."
A new pitcher also makes the transition easier by producing three straight first-class starts.
"That's all I can control, and everybody in here should have that mentality," Lee said. "If everybody does their job individually and picks each other up, then you're going to have a good team.
"There's no doubt the talent is here. Basically, this same team won the World Series last year. The way we rebounded after being swept [at Florida] just shows the character of the team."
The Phillies are way too savvy to take any opponent lightly, and the record will show that their primary East opposition, the Braves and the Marlins, have taken some recent strides.
Still, what you get with the Phillies includes the National League's leading offense in runs scored. You also get a team that is first in the league in home runs and, simultaneously, sixth in stolen bases. That's good stuff. Somewhere in this offense, there is both a way to win and something for every baseball taste.
There were shortcomings in the starting pitching, but the Phillies have taken pains to fix that. Yes, the demotion of Jamie Moyer was truly unfortunate. No, the Phillies' bullpen is not an automatic lock-down operation.
But with this club's strength in run production, and its newly fortified rotation, the Phillies' pennant chances are as good as any other NL team. They can now pitch well enough to win at any level. They already knew how to win at any level.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.