David Murphy: Win brings out the optimists

Posted: June 22, 2012

CALL THEM optimists, call them diehards, call them fools. Wednesday night was for them: For the lovers, for the dreamers, for anybody who swore that fate was bound to improve, the Phillies offered up a 7-6 victory on a game-tying double and a walkoff error in a contest they seemed destined to lose.

But good fortune alone cannot save a team from a 33-37 start. Good pitching? That's another story.

For most of Wednesday's victory, the Phillies again saw their supposed strength fall short, righthander Joe Blanton allowing five runs in seven innings and closer Jonathan Papelbon allowing a go-ahead run in the ninth. While that might be good enough against a 25-42 Rockies team, it is not good enough for the long haul, or even the short one, which includes a visit from the 38-30 Rays this weekend.

The optimists/diehards/fools will insist that there is reason to believe. You might call them naïve. They might call you jaded. And after 3 months spent watching Phillies baseball, you might agree with their characterization.

But they do have two things working in their favor. The first is the newly added second wild-card slot that will help send five teams to the postseason. The second is the pitching.

Seventy games into a 162-game season, the Phillies sit at 33-37, eight games out of the division lead, 4?1/2 behind the second wild-card team. Since 1996, the first full year of the wild-card era, the team that would have been the second NL wild card has reached 88 wins in all but two seasons. So there is your threshold.

Reaching 88 wins will require the Phillies to play .597 baseball the rest of the way, something they have rarely looked capable of doing.

Enter the pitching.

The new holy trinity of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Vance Worley should combine to make at least 56 starts from Thursday through the end of the season. In the trio's last 56 starts of last season, the Phillies went a combined 39-17. An identical mark this season would leave them at 72-54 with 36 games unaccounted for, all of them likely to be started by some combination of Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick and Roy Halladay. To reach 88 wins, the Phillies would need to go 16-20 (.444) in those starts.

That is a lot of hypotheticals to reach a win total that still falls short of the mark tallied by nine woulda-been wild-card teams over the last 16 NL postseasons.

But it is not out of the question, not when you consider that Hamels, Lee and Worley combined to average seven innings per start over their last 56 starts of 2011, and that they surrendered an average of under two runs per start during that stretch. Seven innings and two runs along with a dominant Papelbon is the stuff that winning streaks are made of.

After Wednesday night, the Phillies were 11-14 (.440) in games started by Kendrick and Blanton, despite the fact that the duo had allowed at least five runs in nine of their last 10 outings. Factor in the potential return of Halladay for the last 2 months of the season, and the outlook improves. It will require the aces to pitch like aces, and for Worley to establish himself as one, and for the rest of the gang to contribute more than they have contributed for most of the last month. It will require Chase Utley to be healthy and effective, and Ryan Howard to be Ryan Howard for at least part of the second half.

There is plenty of precedent for such a turnaround. In 2008, the Dodgers were 34-39 through games played on June 20, 4?1/2 games behind division-leading Arizona and eight behind wild-card leader St. Louis. In 2007, the Cubs were 32-38, eight games behind division leader Milwaukee and 8?1/2 behind wild-card leader Arizona. In 2005, the Astros were 29-39, 15?1/2 games behind division leader St. Louis and eight games behind wild-card leader Philadelphia. In 2003, Florida was 36-39, 13 games behind division leading Atlanta and 8?1/2 behind the Dodgers and Giants, who were tied atop the NL West. All made the playoffs. And those were the days of one wild card.

In reality, the Phillies have plenty more faith to restore. But Wednesday night was not about reality. For once.  

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com

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