Inside the Phillies: Big lead in race a good and bad thing

The Phillies' lead in the NL East means Roy Oswalt will face less pressure as he returns from injury. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)
The Phillies' lead in the NL East means Roy Oswalt will face less pressure as he returns from injury. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)
Posted: August 07, 2011

The rest of the National League East, with the exception of Atlanta, has disappeared from the Phillies' rear-view mirror, and even the Braves are nothing more than a distant dot on the horizon now.

Seven-and-a-half weeks remain in this baseball season and the Phillies held a nine-game lead over Atlanta after winning their ninth straight game Saturday in San Francisco.

They have 74 wins after 113 games. The Phillies failed to win that many games 66 times in their first 128 seasons.

Sure, there are plenty of baseball stories about epic collapses and remarkable rallies. But this Phillies team has the kind of pitching and pedigree that would never allow that to happen.

So what's good and what's bad about such a big lead with so many games remaining?

Here's a list of both.

The Good

1. The most obvious benefit of a big lead is that manager Charlie Manuel can rest his veteran players on occasion in both August and September. That's a huge advantage for a team that has a bunch of 30-somethings in the starting lineup. It's especially important for guys such as third baseman Placido Polanco and second baseman Chase Utley, who have had to deal with injuries.

2. Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee will have no problem lining up their desired order for the postseason starting rotation. This is going to be the most interesting decision the team makes between now and the start of the playoffs.

Roy Halladay should remain No. 1, but it's a toss-up whether Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels should follow Halladay to the mound. That decision could be based on whom the Phillies play in their division series. Lee has better regular-season numbers against San Francisco and St. Louis. Hamels has been better against Milwaukee, and the numbers for both men are similar against Arizona.

3. The comfortable division cushion puts less pressure on Roy Oswalt as he attempts to return from a back injury that forced him to spend six weeks on the disabled list. That return begins Sunday against the Giants. Oswalt, of course, is another rotation decision the Phillies have to make for the postseason. Do they go with the veteran who has a 5-1 record and 3.39 postseason ERA in 12 career games or the rookie Vance Worley, who has performed like the fourth ace in Oswalt's absence?

4. Even though you may not get to enjoy the anxiety of a division race this September, this Phillies team is so good that it is going to chase some incredible numbers from the past, and that's always fun to watch, too.

Can this team top the franchise record of 101 regular-season wins set in 1976 and 1977? Can this team match the 151/2-game lead the 1976 Phillies once enjoyed? That's the largest division lead any Phillies team ever had. Can this team be the first in franchise history to win the division by double digits? Can the Phillies become the seventh team in baseball history to win 110 games? If that number seems absurd, remember the 2010 Phillies went 41-19 in their final 60 games.

The Bad

1. The biggest concern for any team with a comfortable lead is complacency. Manuel said last week that he does not think that will happen to the Phillies because they have too many players focused on playing one game and one inning at a time. If the manager ever sees his team doing anything other than that, he need only remind them that this golden era in Phillies baseball began when they erased the New York Mets' seven-game deficit with 17 to play in 2007 to win their first division title since 1993.

2. The Phillies finished with the best record in baseball for the first time in franchise history a year ago and failed to reach the World Series for the first time in three years. No National League team has finished with the best record in baseball and won the World Series since the three-division wild-card system was introduced in 1994. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 1986 New York Mets to find the last NL team that had the best record in baseball and won the World Series.

3. Halladay and Hamels are both in contention for the Cy Young Award, and Lee could make a late push with a strong finish, too. You have to wonder, however, if a big division lead and limited innings in the final weeks would allow someone like Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw to pass them by. Rest assured that all three of the Phillies aces would trade the individual hardware for the opportunity to win a World Series ring.

4. With no race to follow, the time until October may pass slower than usual and the postseason anxiety may be higher than ever because this really looks like a team that should win the World Series.


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com

or @brookob on Twitter.

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