Bob Ford: Howard, Halladay, and Utley will determine Phillies fate in second half

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard both missed the first half of the season with injuries. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Chase Utley and Ryan Howard both missed the first half of the season with injuries. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 08, 2012

On the surface of it, with both Chase Utley and now Ryan Howard back on the field and Roy Halladay working steadily toward rejoining the rotation, the all-star break should find the Phillies feeling optimistic about their chances for almost the first time this season.

The problem is that the Phillies are not on the surface of the National League East, but far beneath it, swimming slowly amid the seaweed like the bottom-feeders they have been.

Nothing is more daunting in baseball than its arithmetic, and the reality of being double-digit games out of first place midway through the season, needing a periscope to see one's distant rivals, is hard to ignore.

Still, as Ruben Amaro Jr. assesses his team heading toward the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July, he won't just study his own club, but the ones the Phillies are chasing. Even though the standings are far different from what might have been expected coming out of spring training, not that much has really changed. None of the three with winning records in the division - not even the first-place Nationals - is the kind of team that makes you want to throw up your hands and quit.

With Utley, Howard, and Halladay back in uniform, the Phillies still have the best overall talent in the division. That requires those three to play at something close to what's on the back of their baseball cards, and also requires players like Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco to turn around their disappointing seasons, but the talent is there.

What will it take to make the postseason? It will take a lot, not the least of which is Amaro's resolve to go for it this season, which will probably require a significant expenditure just to stabilize the shaky bullpen.

As for the arithmetic, the Phillies would have to play over .600 baseball just to get to 85 wins. At the current pace of things in the National League, that would still leave them three or four wins shy of grabbing one of the two available wild-card slots and would still leave them nearly a dozen games behind the Nationals.

Baseball isn't played with a calculator, though, and there is every reason to believe the Nationals are not going to maintain their pace. The organization is steadfast in its decision to shut down righthander Stephen Strasburg when he reaches 160 to 170 innings this season, and that will remove one of their most effective starters from the rotation.

Strasburg figures to be an important asset for years to come, and the Nationals, who saw him pitch just 44 innings last season because of injury, aren't going to take chances with him. Strasburg hasn't pitched more than 123 innings in any season of his career. He doesn't figure to be in the rotation much past the end of August.

Removing him will still leave Gio Gonzalez, who has been excellent, but it will make it difficult for Washington to keep pitching to a 3.22 earned run average and a .232 opponents' batting average. The Phillies know better than any organization what happens when you lose pitching, and it could happen to the Nationals as well.

Washington is the worst hitting team among the four NL East contenders - OK, it's a stretch, but I'm still including the local team - and even has a lower on-base percentage than the walk-averse Phillies. The math might be daunting, but, really, the Nats are not.

As for the Mets and the Braves, their seasons have been all right but nothing spectacular. The Mets get on base but can't hit for power, and their 3.96 ERA is middle of the pack. The Braves have a decent lineup, but had won just 10 of their previous 24 games before trying to beat the Phils again Saturday night.

Of course, the Phillies numbers don't inspire much confidence, either. They have the best team batting average among the contenders - yes, there's that word again - and have even hit more home runs than the Mets or Braves, but their pitching has been the killer.

Halladay will help, if effective, and Cliff Lee figures to have a more productive second half of the season. With a little bit better bullpen, their record of 18 saves and 12 blown saves won't be repeated. (Despite messing one up the other night, Jonathan Papelbon is 18 for 20 in save opportunities, by the way. So get off his back.)

Well, that's the optimistic report, although it all depends on Utley, Howard, and Halladay lifting the team to somewhere near its abilities. The pessimistic report could return quickly if the next two to three weeks indicate those guys aren't capable of doing so.

In any case, you look at the National League East and it isn't that scary aside from the arithmetic. The Nationals, Mets, and Braves are where they are. There's no question about that. But they are there, more than anything, because the Phillies are where they are, too.

Contact Bob Ford at, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at Read his columns at

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