Rich Hofmann: For Phillies' playoff hopes, no time like the present

Posted: September 29, 2009

GAME NO. 156 - the very number bespeaks the mind-numbing, body-aching nature of a major league baseball season. It began so long ago for the Phillies, for all of them, but the result has seemed preordained for months. Because of that, the emotion has been so difficult to capture. It is as if the song has just played in an endless, exhausting loop since July: Wake me up when September ends . . .

So different than 2 years ago, when the Phillies had yet to win anything, when the Mets had yet to reveal the empty place beneath their sternum. They lost No. 156 in 2007 to the Washington Nationals, with Antonio Alfonseca taking the six-fingered loss out of the bullpen. They trailed by 2 1/2 games with six to play.

So different than last year, when the Phillies were defending their National League East title but still chasing for a long time, still clawing before a roaring, locked-in fan base. They won No. 156 in 2008 over the Florida Marlins, with Brad Lidge getting the save, automatically. They led by 1 1/2 games with six to play.

This is 2009, though, and the Phillies are coming down the final straightaway trailed by parachutes (and the Atlanta Braves). They looked gassed last night in No. 156, a really flaccid 8-2 loss to the Houston Astros. Nobody has chased them for so long, but now the Braves are coming - still more a theoretical problem than a real one, but out there nonetheless. The Phillies lead by four games with six to play.

And manager Charlie Manuel said about his team, "I'm betting on them, really. But at the same time, if we're going to get going, now is the time."

It is such an odd feeling. With worries about the bullpen, with worries about the way they have looked overall lately, when the Phillies clinch this thing - and they will clinch it - the whole town will experience a kind of victorious malaise. It is hard to know what it all means.

"Some would say Atlanta is hot right now because they've won all these games," Manuel said. "They would say they might be tough for the playoffs. In some ways I disagree with that because I've seen them win 14 [NL East] championships and go to the playoffs and not make it out of the first round. You can find different ways to have arguments over that."

The Braves have captured Manuel's imagination, at least a bit - and how could they not? With last night's 4-0 win over Florida, the Braves have now won 15 out of 17 (the only losses coming against the Phillies). They have had a pretty sweet ride down the stretch here. Not only are they at home for the final week of the season, as the Phillies are, but 13 of their last 19 games are against the awful Nationals and Mets - including four against the Nationals this weekend.

And, yes, Manuel has noticed.

"I think the schedule hit absolutely perfect for them," he said. "That's definitely not an excuse because I feel like we've got the best team in our league. I feel like we've definitely had control of our destination and that we have the best team in the league. It's up to us to win - that's what I think.

"But, at the same time, the schedule - definitely, they couldn't have hit it more. I think [Braves manager Bobby] Cox made that schedule up. I think when they announced his retirement [after the 2010 season], I think they let him go back and redo the schedule."

Manuel was playing for a laugh, sitting in the dugout, hours before his team went out and perpetrated its really desultory loss to the Astros. It is as if they have been drugged by the big lead they have had all summer. Manuel said, "The last couple of weeks, I think the fact that we had a lead in the loss column - at one time we had a nine- or 10-game lead in the loss column - and I think all the hoopla about how far we were ahead and trying to control that, I think that's harder than anything . . . People just take it for granted that you've already won something."

But they have not. There is no panic among the Phillies, not even a hint of a whiff of panic. That isn't what this is about. Instead, it is about not looking like the team they know they are capable of being. It is about the unease that people can feel as everyone waits for that team to re-emerge. And waits.

"Any time something pushes us and we rise to the occasion, I think that can be good," Manuel said. "But I think we're getting close to that time."

Send e-mail to

hofmanr@phillynews.com,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

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