Phillies look to be on another level this year
In age of parity, NL East power's mound superiority sets it apart
At a time when the game's parity is promoted and tight races are trumpeted, the Philadelphia Phillies have been in a class all their own this season.The Phillies have had the best record in baseball since June 9. They've had the best record in the National League for all but 16 days this season ... and all but one of those days came in April. And do you know how many days the Fighting Phils have spent outside of first place in the NL East? That would be one. One day. It was April 26, when they were a half-game behind the Marlins. (Hope you enjoyed it, Florida.) With a 7 1/2-game lead on the Braves, who would be worthy contenders for the crown in the two other NL divisions, it's reasonable to believe the Phillies will claim their fifth consecutive NL East title. Really, the only regular-season intrigue surrounding this club, at this point, is historical in nature. With a 78-42 record entering Wednesday night's home game against the D-backs, the Phillies are on pace to become the first NL club with 105 wins since the 1998 Braves, and they could even become the first NL club with 108 wins since the 1986 Mets. They even have a chance to become the first NL club to reach 110 wins since the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates. "The Phillies are as good as any team I've seen," said Chipper Jones, a member of the current and the '98 Braves. "I'd put them up against any of those Yankees clubs of the late '90s and early 2000s. That club has got it going on, and they are flat-out playing like it, day in and day out." That latter point is backed up by the fact that the Phillies have lost back-to-back games just once since June 5. They are steamrolling their competition, thanks to a robust rotation that has been credited with 58 wins (most in the Majors), a bullpen that has blown just three saves (fewest in the Majors) and a defense that has committed just 53 errors (fewest in the Majors). "To me," said an AL scout assigned to the Phillies, "looking at a team going into the postseason, the one aspect that really stands out is the quality of their starters, first and foremost. Other than that, they're really well balanced in the field, with the exception of left field and third base. They've got good, veteran players that produce on both sides of the ball." And now that they have Hunter Pence, they have the right-left balance the middle of the order so sorely needed. Pence, who is under contractual control through 2013, has made an immediate impact, batting .310 with three homers and 11 RBIs in his first 15 games, in which the Phillies have gone 12-3. "He came at a time when we actually started to hit a little bit more on our offensive cylinders," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We hadn't been swinging the bat consistently until more recently, when [Placido] Polanco was back for a little while and Chase [Utley] has gotten back in the swing of things after being out for two months. We started swinging as a team, and then Hunter came in and added to our depth and added to our balance in the lineup. That was fortunate timing." Amaro is getting praise for the Pence pickup, just as he was lauded for landing Cliff Lee over the winter with a lower bid than that of the Yankees and Rangers. It's due praise, though it will probably prove fleeting if the end goal of a Broad Street parade goes unmet. "We'll let the chips fall where they may," Amaro said. "I think we've put ourselves in a good position to try to move forward if we get in a playoff situation. But baseball is such an arbitrary game. There are only so many things you can control, really. When you talk about a short series, five or seven games, it's about the team that's playing the best baseball. Hopefully we're playing the best baseball at the right time." This rotation certainly gives the Phillies a solid foot forward, in that regard. We knew about the stoutness of the starting five going into the year, yet even that element has exceeded expectations. Given the enormity of those expectations, that's no small feat. And when you consider the time Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton have missed due to injury, the fact that the Phillies have not missed a beat is an accomplishment. "If you were to tell me we'd lose two-fifths of our rotation pretty much for most of the year and be in this position," Amaro said, "I'd be very surprised." The Phillies' starters have a 2.99 ERA. To put that in perspective, only eight individual qualifying starters in the NL (three of them Phillies, naturally) have an ERA that low. This staff has a real opportunity to become the first to post a sub-3.00 ERA since the 1992 Braves. And that's especially impressive since they play half their games in notoriously hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. "A lot of people talk about formulating your club to your ballpark," Amaro said. "I don't buy into that. A lot of ballparks are offensive now. But you see, at the end of the day and over the course of the last couple years, it's obvious that pitching kind of rules the day. We learned that the hard way last year. San Francisco pitched better than we did." Now, San Francisco or whoever else will have to outpitch both Roy Halladay (15-5, 2.53 ERA) and Lee (12-7, 2.83). And even with his current "dead arm" issues and shoulder inflammation taken into account, it's been a career year for Cole Hamels (13-7, 2.62), who helped carry the Phillies to a title in 2008. The real surprise has been the impact of rookie Vance Worley, who is 8-1 with a 2.85 ERA. "They have a quality mid-rotation starter in the fifth spot," the scout said. "He wouldn't even make a start in the playoffs." The balancing act the Phillies will have to perform in the season's waning weeks is making sure they simultaneously give Halladay, Lee and Hamels both adequate rest in anticipation of October and adequate work to stay sharp. But that certainly beats the alternative of having to fight for your life in the season's final week. Still, there are some historical hurdles that must be acknowledged here. Only three teams in the Wild Card era who finished the regular season with the game's best record have gone on to win the World Series. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games but famously fell flat in the ALCS. Those aforementioned '98 Braves fell to the Padres in the NLCS. So for many teams, the ability to plot and prepare has not proven a positive. In fact, the only other time the Phillies have been in this type of position in their history was 1976, when they had a 10 1/2-game lead at the end of August and could reasonably rest up for October. That club was swept by the Reds in the NLCS. Will the Phillies be beatable in October? Perhaps. The challenge for those who face them in the postseason will be to show patience with their pitch-to-contact staff, as the eventual-champion Giants did in last year's LCS. "If I'm facing them," the scout said, "the one thing I'm hoping for is to get to their 'pen. It hasn't been bad, but I think the quality of rotation masks some of the weaknesses of the bullpen." That's something to consider in October. For now, the Phillies must address the formality of winning their division and, perhaps, putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest records in NL history. "We're pretty focused," Amaro said. "We don't count the chickens before they're hatched."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.