September 23, 2011

Don't worry about the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies did just get swept in a four-game series by the Washington Nationals.

Yes, Beerleaguer pointed out earlier this week that over the last 10 years, "only two teams have struggled down the stretch and gone on to win the World Series."

And yes, famed Phillies blogger Zoo With Roy's (possibly incorrect) playoff calculations have John Bowker's squad being unexpected eliminated from postseason contention after last night's stinkfest. Good year, gang.

This is all causing some fans to remove their belts and set up chairs under low-hanging ceiling beams. But I'm here to tell you that, this year, late September baseball and early October baseball could not be more different, and the Phillies know that as well as anybody.

Almost everyone on this team's been to the Big Dance before; a lot of the core already took home rings in 2008. They all understand the importance, and the urgency, of every playoff game, and I can't imagine that they'll come out slacking when it's Division Series time.

So what if the hitters can't hit right now? They're running Pete Orr, Ross Gload, John Bowker and the walking, talking corpse of Chase Utley out there every night. I'm amazed the Nats didn't shut them out for the series. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins is (hopefully) getting his swagger back, Hunter Pence is finally enjoying some much-needed rest and Ryan Howard should be ready to go after that nice big cortisone shot was jammed into his injured ankle.

Anyway, this team is built around starting pitching. Roy Oswalt said last night was the "best he's felt all season," and Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all appear to be healthy. With the steady Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick strengthening Ryan Madson and his suddenly shaky bullpen cohorts, innings 1-9 should be in good shape.

Utley (.174 in September with 1 home run) and Antonio Bastardo (6 earned runs in 8 September appearances) are certainly question marks, but those are individual issues, not team ones. We can only hope that Utley's issues at the plate are mechanical, not injury-related, and that someone like Joe Savery can unexpectedly contribute in October if the previously wonderful Bastardo continues to falter.

Basically, this "slump" is being blown wildly out of proportion. As the Philadelphia Flyers have proven in the past, being talented isn't a cure-all when your team's in shambles. The Phillies aren't in shambles, though; they -- probably inspired by their manager and his "whatever" lineup choices -- are choosing not to show up for utterly meaningless regular season games. It's not exactly what we'd like to see as fans, but it's also not indicative of what this team is really all about.

Charlie Manuel apparently plans to play his starters starting Saturday, which will give them five games to get their sea legs back and five days to calm the stomachs of overreacting fans. Then they'll run into the Milwaukee Brewers or the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, two top-heavy teams that shouldn't pose too much of a challenge to the deeper, savvier boys from Philadelphia.

And if, God forbid, they do lose in the first round, it'll be because of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Zack Greinke. Or Ian Kennedy, Justin Upton and Miguel Montero. Not because the Phillies backups couldn't hit Brad Peacock on a Thursday night in late September.

So far, the Phillies have spent 2011 proving that they're a veteran squad with a burning desire to win and a taste for the theatrical. If it turns out that they have somehow lost their competitive fire after scuffling through a week of irrelevant baseball, well, they didn't deserve to win a championship in the first place.

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