Phillies' second half could be better than first

DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff photographer
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff photographer (John Mayberry Jr. has a few weeks to prove that he's the righthanded bat the Phillies need.)
Posted: July 15, 2011

IT STARTED AS a casual aside back in 2005, somewhere around the middle of the season. Charlie Manuel, in his first year as the Phillies manager, mentioned in passing that his teams always improved in the second half of the season.

Investigation ensued. He was pretty much on the mark. With only two exceptions, including his 9 years in the minors, his clubs had a better record after the break than before. And that trend has continued ever since.

Just because something has happened before doesn't mean it will happen again, of course. But can the team with the best record in baseball, already on track to win 101 games, still step it up?

There are a couple of good reasons to doubt it. One is that there's less available upside at midseason than ever before. They have 57 wins, 10 more than they had when baseball took its annual July hiatus a year ago.

The other is that, for each of the past few years, the Phillies have made a significant addition before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the sort of deal that sends a jolt of electricity through the clubhouse. Kyle Lohse is 2007. Joe Blanton is 2008. Cliff Lee in 2009. Roy Oswalt last season.

If general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is to be taken at face value, he doesn't have the dead presidents to do anything major. If that turns out to be true, the Phillies will pretty much have to make do with what they have on hand for the final couple of months of the season and then the playoffs.

Which is still pretty good. And, yes, good enough to be even better in the second half than the first. Here's why, with the boilerplate disclaimer that further injuries could potentially render everything that follows null and void: While Amaro may not be able to make the kind of gee-whiz move to which Phillies fans have become accustomed, ya gotta believe that he'll find a way to at least do something in the margins that will help.

The Phillies' baseball people have to be seeing the same things everyone else is, that it doesn't take many fingers to count the number of runs the team scores on most nights. So unless John Mayberry Jr. convinces them he's the righthanded bat they've been looking for, and does it fast, it's a given that they'll find a way to improve in that area. Isn't it?

Chase Utley missed most of the first 2 months. While the second baseman might not be the perennial Most Valuable Player candidate he was a few years ago, he's still an important part of the lineup.

Ryan Howard's career slugging percentage in the first half is .522. In the second half, it's .616.

The bullpen is getting healthy again. There's no way to know what to expect from Brad Lidge. But having Ryan Madson back should be a plus on its own merits. And it should also help take the pressure off Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes, two youngsters who shouldered a heavy workload before the break.

Rookie righthander Vance Worley still has to pass the second-time-around-the-league test. But he has shown enough to give the Phillies confidence that, at a bare minimum, they have the No. 4 spot in the rotation covered while they wait to see how Roy Oswalt (back) and Joe Blanton (elbow) respond to treatment.

The Braves aren't going away. So it's unlikely the Phillies will be tempted to relax with a big lead.

So, believe it or not, they could be even better from now through the regular-season finale against the Braves on Sept. 28.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. Because what really counts is what happens after that.

AROUND THE BASES

 * Mad men: Both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee made convincing cases immediately after their All-Star appearances Tuesday night that they had no problem with being used more than the standard one inning and that they'd be ready to go whenever needed after the break.

Still, you have to believe Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee wasn't thrilled to see NL manager Bruce Bochy extend both starters while staying away from his Giants starters, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong.

That could add some spice when the teams that met in last year's NLCS play at Citizens Bank Park beginning a week from Tuesday and then again in San Francisco, Aug. 4-8. Still, let's not get carried away.

Teams can call ahead and request special handling of pitchers. The Phils, by all accounts, didn't do that. Picking your own players, and using them as you see fit, is one of the perks of being the All-Star manager. The NL won, which could benefit the Phillies if they make the World Series. Bochy also used Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens for more than an inning. And, finally, if Halladay and Lee are all right with it, everybody else should be, too.

* New York state of mind: The Phillies play the Mets nine more times this season, starting tonight at Citi Field. New York will be without closer Francisco Rodriguez, traded to Milwaukee during the break.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, in a conference call, insisted that move doesn't mean that outfielder Carlos Beltran will soon be changing uniforms as well. He said that the K-Rod move was all about the $17.5 million option the righthander has for 2012 and that Beltran's future depends on how well the team plays between now and the trading deadline.

It says here Beltran should keep his suitcase packed.

* On second thought: Texas Rangers lefthander C.J. Wilson gave up the three-run homer to Milwaukee's Prince Fielder that helped cost the American League a win in Tuesday night's All-Star Game. "Bummer,'' he said.

After further review, though, Wilson decided that not having homefield advantage in the World Series wouldn't be so bad after all. "That's awesome because it means I'll get to hit if we go [back]. Maybe it's all part of an elaborate scheme,'' he said, envisioning a Game 1 start.

PHAIR AND PHOUL

 * Tweet, tweet: There have been ongoing rumors that the Phillies could trade for Padres All-Star closer Heath Bell. And while that doesn't make sense on some levels - payroll, giving up more prospects - this is interesting.

A fan recently tweeted Bell and asked what his wife Nicole's favorite road ballpark is. "Philly because they were really nice there and gave her sushi after the game," he responded.

Gee, do you think he might be trying to send somebody a message?

* Add Bell: Two other Padres players the Phillies are believed to be looking at are reliever Mike Adams and outfielder Ryan Ludwick. San Diego would probably start by asking for Domonic Brown and/or Vance Worley and also could be interested in several Clearwater Threshers, including catcher Sebastian Valle and the young starters such as Trevor May, Jarred Cosart and Brody Colvin.

* Former Phils File I: The Nationals were down by a run Saturday night but had runners on first and third with headline free-agent acquisition Jayson Werth at the plate. He grounded into a game-ending doubleplay. And the booing was reportedly so loud and prolonged that it drowned out part of the postgame show.

Now, that's an overreaction. But it also illustrates once again that when free agents sign big contracts - and Werth got $126 million - then don't immediately live up to expectations - and he was hitting .215 at the break - the response tends to be a little shrill.

* Former Phils File II: Pat Burrell made a big impact on the Giants when he signed with San Francisco after being released by Tampa Bay last season. But rumors circulated during the All-Star break that he could be released soon.

* Idle thought: Wonder whether the Phillies would be interested in Burrell if he was looking for a job? Even though he was only batting .234 at the break, he had a .343 on-base percentage and a .421 slugging percentage playing half his games in spacious AT&T Park. And he's making only $1 million this year with more than half of it already paid by the Giants.

* What are the odds?: When Mike Ondo was in high school, he attended a Phillies game at the Vet during which Andy Ashby struck out the side on nine pitches, believed to be the only time in franchise history that happened. Ondo, now the Phillies' professional scouting director, was instrumental in getting the team to sign 32-year-old lefty reliever Juan Perez last winter. Who, of course, became the second Phillies pitcher to accomplish that feat last Friday against the Braves.

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