Paul Hagen: For Phillies, this doesn't feel like first place of years past

Posted: September 08, 2010

SUGGESTED TITLE for the highlight video this offseason: "What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been." Because the Grateful Dead would have loved these 2010 Phillies.

When the grounds crew came out to drag the infield and the remnants of the crowd filtered into the night and the daily cycle of closing the books on one game and preparing for the next began anew, the Phils were sitting in first place of the National League East, right where they've been found at the end of each of the previous three seasons.

They combined power (three home runs) and speed (two stolen bases) and timely hitting and solid enough starting pitching (Joe Blanton allowed two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings). Just as they used to.

Except that this isn't 2008 or 2009 anymore. So they made it a lot harder on themselves than necessary.

A silly throwing error by Jayson Werth, a balk and a walk by J.C. Romero while facing only one batter, and a wild pitch by closer du jour Ryan Madson helped the Florida Marlins to tie the score in the eighth.

Even somebody who doesn't know a baseball from a kumquat wouldn't immediately identify that sequence as having been committed by a division-leading club.

That was papered over when the Phillies constructed a two-out rally in the bottom of the inning that allowed them to pull out an 8-7 win against the Fish and hopscotch over the Atlanta Braves by a half-game.

Which is swell and all.

"It's always good to be in first place. It's the only way to live," manager Charlie Manuel said with a smile after the game. And he's right. It beats the alternative. But it's important to remember this is only a temporary accomplishment.

Starting tomorrow, for the next week, the Phillies can't count on teams such as the Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates to do their dirty work for them.

The Braves lost two of three to the Fish and now two straight to the Buccos, who have the worst record in baseball. The reality, though, is that Atlanta's biggest opponent for much of the season has been the schedule-maker. Those last five games have been on the road. And, simply, the Braves are a different team when they take a cab or bus to work instead of driving their own expensive German engineering.

At Turner Field: 49-19, the biggest home advantage in baseball.

On the road, 30-41, which doesn't scare anybody.

Starting tomorrow, though, the roles are reversed. The Braves go home to play four against the freefalling St. Louis Cardinals and three against the last-place Nationals. If form holds, they should win most of those games.

The Phillies, at the same time, visit the Mets and Marlins. Winnable games, certainly. But, as they demonstrated again last night, nothing can be taken for granted.

The Phillies must hold their own during this stretch.

At least hold their own . . .

After that, the pendulum swings back hard in favor of the defending National League champions. The Braves embark on their final road trip of the regular season, a nine-game odyssey that includes three critical head-to-head games at Citizens Bank Park right in the middle.

The Phillies are home on all the corresponding dates. This is where they must build some margin for error.

At least some margin for error . . .

As everybody who's been paying attention knows by now, the schedule flips again the last week. The Phillies finish on the road, and the Braves are home, including hosting the Phils the final weekend of the season.

If the visitors go in needing to take the series, that's a steep hill to climb.

Last night, the Phillies demonstrated again how formidable they can be when they are playing up to their considerable capabilities . . . and how damnably vulnerable they can appear when they're not.

Three-homer games used to be routine for this team. In 2009, they had 27 of them. Last night was only the 14th this year. Last year, they stole 119 bases. So far this season: 84.

Another oddity: On the night they recaptured the lead, the smallest announced crowd of the season looked on. Still a sellout, but the first attendance under 44,000.

Maybe this is nit-picking. This is a team, after all, that has had a lot of injuries. Almost all of their key offensive players have had seasons that are statistically well below what could logically have been expected from them. The bullpen has been inconsistent. Resurgent closer Brad Lidge was unavailable again last night, this time with a hyperextended elbow.

And yet, here they are. In first place for the first time since May 30. Just like the good old days. Except that it really didn't feel last night as if celebration was in order. No champagne. Not even a cup of water poured over somebody's head and a toot on a kazoo.

What a long, strange trip it has been for the Phillies this year. And it's not close to being over yet. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com.

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