Phils can capitalize on soft spot in their schedule

The Phillies are in the midst of playing 16 straight games against teams with losing records. (Nick Wass/AP)
The Phillies are in the midst of playing 16 straight games against teams with losing records. (Nick Wass/AP)
Posted: May 31, 2011

WASHINGTON - Charlie Manuel slipped into a heartfelt speech about his respect for the military and how he could not think of a better place to be than the nation's capital on Memorial Day.

Truth be told, Manuel and the Phillies should be in the holiday spirit whenever they see the Washington Nationals, whether it be here in the shadow of the Capitol or at home at Citizens Bank Park. Over the last five seasons, the Phillies have compiled a 57-22 record against the Nationals, including a 27-13 mark on the road. That .722 winning percentage is their best against any National League team in that span.

The road record is somewhat deceptive because there is no reason for the Phillies to feel anything but at home here at Nationals Park, where a sea of red is created by fans in the visiting team's jerseys and chants of "Let's go, Phillies" always drown out any halfhearted attempt by the home fans to support their wretched team.

It was so bad in Monday's 5-4 Nationals loss that former Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth had to endure first-inning heckling - "Jaaaayson, Jaaaayson" - in his own ballpark because the right-field bleachers were taken over by Phillies fans.

The train from New York couldn't get here fast enough for the Phillies Sunday night.

The script for this Memorial Day meeting was a little different. It was solar energy day, which meant all 34,789 fans risked heatstroke, sun blisters, and dehydration just for attending. Add in the fact that Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay was more human than heroic and it was an atypical afternoon right up until the predictable ending.

"I think there is a mentality here that we all expect to win those games," Halladay said after earning a grind-it-out victory with seven sweaty innings that took 111 pitches to complete. "I've been on teams where we've lost a lot of those games, and it's like you're almost waiting for something to go wrong that causes you to lose. I think there is definitely a mentality about winning, and that was here when I got here. They expected to win."

Chase Utley has been a driving force behind that mentality. The second baseman has been back for a week after an extensive rehab to make the patellar tendinitis in his right knee manageable. As promised, Manuel is monitoring the second baseman's playing time. When the team took a one-run lead into the ninth Monday, Manuel sent in Wilson Valdez as a defensive replacement.

Before that move was made, however, Utley started the most significant offensive sequence of the game for the Phillies. With the Nationals up by a run in the top of the seventh, Placido Polanco ended starting pitcher Livan Hernandez's afternoon with a one-out single.

Troubled Nationals manager Jim Riggleman surveyed the Phillies lineup card and called in lefty Sean Burnett to face the lefthanded-hitting trio of Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Lefthanded hitters were batting .179 off Burnett this season.

Utley worked an eight-pitch walk by twice fouling off two-strike pitches.

"We're trying to get as many baserunners as we can," Utley said. "You're not going up there looking for a walk, but any time you can get base runners, you're going to have a chance to score some runs."

It was Utley's second walk of the day and he also stole a base, signs that have to excite the Phillies.

"He's just being him," said Howard, who followed the walk with a game-tying single after earlier hitting a home run. "He's going out there and playing, and if he feels good enough to be able to go out there and run, I'm not going to question it. It might be a little bit of a surprise, but keep on doing it."

Howard described Utley's return as "huge." The Phillies are 6-2 overall and 5-1 in the games he has started.

"He's kind of getting his feet wet and getting back into it, but . . . his mind-set and his playing style, it's like he hasn't missed a beat," Howard said.

Shane Victorino is expected to return from the disabled list Friday in Pittsburgh, which means for the first time this season Manuel will have a chance to play the lineup he envisioned when spring training opened 31/2 months ago.

Add the fact that the Phillies have hit a soft spot in their schedule and Manuel's team may finally be able to put some distance between itself and the other teams in the division. Starting with their just-completed series in New York, the Phillies are in the midst of playing 16 straight games against teams with losing records.

By contrast, the second-place Florida Marlins started a string of 24 straight games against teams with winning records Monday night against the resurgent Arizona Diamondbacks. The Marlins are also dealing with injuries to staff ace Josh Johnson and star shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

"I think right now we're close to being healthy . . . and our offense should pick up and our pitching has been there all year," Manuel said. "We could really get into [a stretch] where we play some real good baseball. It's kind of up to us. We're the ones that have to make it happen."

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at or @brookob on Twitter.


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