They've managed to stay close, mostly because nobody else in the division has been playing that well, either. So in the sense that getting swept would make their uphill climb a little steeper, yeah, this weekend has a certain amount of significance for a team still fighting the stigma of disappearing the last two Septembers.
Two things, though:
There really is no such thing as a crucial series before the All-Star break. Too much can happen. We've all seen it too many times.
And, second, these games are every bit as important to the Phillies as to the Mets.
Think about it. Sure, the Phillies should be a better team once Raul Ibanez comes back from the strained left groin that has kept him out the last couple of weeks.
Now apply that same logic to New York. How much better will they be when their core players start being activated? That apparently could start happening by the end of the month. Even Wagner could be back by August. And imagine Jerry Manuel having Billy the Kid and Putz to cover the seventh and eighth to get the game to closer Francisco Rodriguez.
Plus, Mike Pelfrey is pitching really well. Johan Santana, despite some recent struggles, is still Johan Santana, giving the Mets a potential 1-2 hammer at the top of their rotation.
As bleak as things look for the crew from Queens at the moment, they're far from out of it.
That makes these next three games just as important to the home team as the visitors.
It would be a mistake for the Phillies to overlook the Mets.
Heck, the way they've played lately, it would be a mistake for the Phillies to overlook anybody.
The hot corner
* The trade market is still developing, but early indications are that the Indians would have to be overwhelmed to consider dealing Cliff Lee and that the Diamondbacks are also extremely unlikely to let Dan Haren go. Meanwhile, the Pirates and Nationals appear to be in full fire-sale mode, with the Royals considering making most of their roster available as well.
* If a pitcher making his major league debut is facing the Brewers, bet on the opponent. Milwaukee is 0-4 this season against pitchers facing big-league hitters for the first time in a game that counts.
* The Braves appear to be running out of patience with talented-but-inconsistent shortstop Yunel Escobar. It wouldn't surprise anybody if he ended up being traded.
Around the bases
* Tony Gwynn Jr. hit his first major league home run last Friday for the Padres. That makes him and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn Sr. the first father-son combo to hit their first big- league blast for the same team since Ruben Amaro Sr. (Sept. 12, 1961) and current general manager Ruben Jr. (April 8, 1992) did it for the Phillies.
* Attendance is down nearly 5,000 a game in Arizona. And the 12 smallest crowds in San Diego's Petco Park history came during the first 39 home dates of this year.
* The Brewers play in a stadium with a retractable roof. But they had to issue bobblehead rain checks after flooding at Miller Park ruined nearly 7,000 Jason Kendall dolls that were to have been given away.
For the Orioles. Losing to the mighty Red Sox, 10-1, going into the bottom of the seventh Tuesday night, having already endured a long rain delay, nobody could have blamed them for just wanting to get it over with.
Instead, they scored 10 runs against the bullpen with baseball's best ERA to win, 11-10. That's the biggest comeback in history by a last-place team against a first-place team.
"It was like the baseball gods were talking to you, that you were going to win the game," Aubrey Huff said. "It was just a weird feeling. You can't explain it."
For Jeremy Jeffress. The Brewers' top pitching prospect was suspended for 100 games this week after a second positive test for a "drug of abuse," believed to be marijuana. But it's even worse than that. While serving his first 50-game suspension, he also flunked an in-house test administered by the Brewers.
One more and he'll receive a lifetime ban. And while nobody is minimizing how crippling addiction can be or ignoring that it can be considered an illness or lacks empathy, the Brewers are rightly unhappy with this development.
Assistant general manager Gord Ash said Jeffress, 21, has received "ample support and education" and added: "It's tough to be shocked anymore, but it's certainly surprising ... he's going to have to make a decision on understanding that, in order to be a major league player, he's going to have to comply with the rules."
BY THE NUMBERS:
14.82: Strikeouts per nine innings by Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, highest ratio in the majors.
20: Times Seattle's Ichiro has had at least 40 hits in a month, after having 44 hits in June.
100: Years ago tomorrow that baseball had its first fireworks show. It was at the just-opened Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which later also featured the first infield tarp and the first padded walls.
Manny Ramirez returns to the Dodgers' lineup tonight after serving his 50-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance. And they can use him, even though they still have the best record in baseball. After averaging 5.7 runs per game in April and 5.4 in May, they scored just 3.5 runs per game in June.
Manny being Manny, of course, this doesn't come without a little added drama. He skipped what would have been his final minor league tuneup at Class A Inland Empire on Tuesday, apparently because the 11 a.m. starting time didn't fit into his schedule.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, on why the crowds were small at U.S. Cellular Field when his team hosted the first-place Dodgers during interleague play: "Because our fans are not stupid like Cubs fans. They knew we're [bleep] ... Wrigley Field is just a bar."
CAREER CHOICE OF THE WEEK: Nationals reliever Julian Tavarez, 36, says he's not planning to retire anytime soon. "As long as I'm healthy, I'm going to play ball," he said. "It was a dream for me to be a baseball player. I didn't go to college. I wasn't going to be a doctor."
STAT OF THE WEEK: Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyer is two home runs short of passing Ferguson Jenkins for second-most big flies allowed. The Hall of Fame righthander surrendered 484 in his 19-year career. Phillies great Robin Roberts yielded 505.
BIRD OF THE WEEK: The Cubs released Chad Gaudin at the end of spring training.
Signed by the Padres, he was named co-NL Player of the Week after going 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA and 20 strikeouts in a pair of starts. That included allowing just one hit in eight innings to the Rangers.
That sounds like Toby Keith singing "How Do You Like Me Now?" in the background.
A Cubs fan named Daniel Kamen has decided to do his part to help the floundering team. After the All-Star break, he'll begin a 500-calories-per-day "hunger strike" and will stick to it until the Cubbies win five straight, something a team many picked to make the World Series has yet to accomplish.
"I'm going to motivate them," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I'm going to embarrass them into winning more games."
Hmm. The Cubs are having a disappointing season despite their personal pride, the fans, their big contracts and having high-decibel manager Lou Piniella in their ears all the time. They are having trouble with volatile personalities such as Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley. But a guy going on a diet in the suburbs will turn everything around.
Yeah, that ought to do it. *