Marcus Hayes: Heat is off the underachieving Phillies

Nationals catcher Sandy Leon tags out John Mayberry, who tried to score from second on a second-inning single by Michael Martinez. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nationals catcher Sandy Leon tags out John Mayberry, who tried to score from second on a second-inning single by Michael Martinez. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: August 03, 2012

WASHINGTON — As the ground ball skipped to his left, John Mayberry Jr. froze, leaned back toward third, then broke for home.

He had no chance.

Mayberry found himself in a rundown. He became the second out of the fourth inning, a forfeited out, a lost chance.

It was the kind of moment that deflated the Phillies game after game for the first 4 months of the season.

On Wednesday, it was just another play.

Young starter Vance Worley retired three Nationals on nine pitches. Jimmy Rollins and Nate Schierholtz gave the Phillies a lead with consecutive homers in the top of the fifth. Worley faced 10 more hitters in his last three innings. The bullpen held.

Who are these Phillies?

Since the other shoe fell on the season Tuesday, with trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, they are the Phillies of late 2006 and of late 2007.

They are the Phillies who, bent of proving fatalistic general manager Pat Gillick wrong, played 2 months of a joyous brand of beautiful baseball.

That play carried them to the brink of the playoffs in '06, after trades of Bobby Abreu, David Bell and Cory Lidle.

That play carried them to the first of five NL East titles in '07, after it seemed the Mets would walk away with the division.

Where can that play carry them over the next 8 weeks?

They do not seem to care.

At last.

"Guys are relaxed," Rollins said before Thursday night's game. He had homered three times in the previous 2 nights, both wins here. "Now, you're not trying to live up to the hype."

Rollins knows hype.

It was he who, after the 2006 season, hyped the 2007 team by proclaiming it the "Team to Beat," not the reigning Mets.

On Aug. 25 2007, that Phillies team had lost six of seven games, rested seven games behind the Mets and shifted its focus.

"We were, like, ‘OK, you're not going to win the division. Let's just make a run at the wild card,' " Rollins recalled.

They played loose. And well. And won the East as the Mets collapsed.

Rollins won the MVP that year, and that began years of Phillies hype.

With a stacked rotation and a mammoth payroll, the hype never was higher than last season, and this.

Last season, the Phillies won 102 games but lost in the division series.

This season, they never have challenged significance.

Without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for the first 3 months, the Phils stumbled to a 45-57 mark by the trading deadline.

Understand: Had those numbers been reversed — had the team been 57-45 and on track for only 90 wins — the season still would have been viewed as disappointing.

"Things got lost because of so many wins last year," Rollins said. "We came in and felt, ‘We've got to win the division. We've got to win the division … But we don't have two big pieces of the puzzle. We have to find a way!' Now, it's just, ‘Let's win, and we'll see where it leads us.' "

It probably will lead them no further than Oct. 3, when they return here to finish their season and witness the advancement of the Nationals.

The Phillies aren't playing like the season is over. They're playing a little crisper, and a little sharper. They entered Thursday night so far out of the wild-card race (12 games) that the nightly MLB information packet didn't even list them. Rollins is keeping track.

"Once you settle and just accept things for what they are, you relax. Right now we're in last place. We have an outside shot at the wild card. We've got some teams ahead of us that we can control. You have to let things fall into place."

The way things fall into place when a goblin opens a vault at Gringotts.

Not only must the Phillies jump seven teams, they play two of them — the Cardinals and Diamondbacks — only one more three-game series. They are finished with the Dodgers.

They do have the Braves and Marlins for nine games each, the Mets for six. They even play the first-place Nationals nine more times.

They won't catch anyone with Michael Martinez playing centerfield like it's shortstop, as he did in Thursday night's 3-0 loss. Martinez, Domonic Brown and Mayberry started in the outfield. None should be anywhere near the starting lineup of a contending team.

And, really, the Phillies are nowhere near a contending team.

They just played like it in two of three games in Washington. Finally.

"We're still making a lot of mistakes," Rollins said. "We did that a few years ago, too. Then, it was just about playing baseball. The last few nights, it's definitely seemed that way."

So, when Mayberry breaks for home, it doesn't trigger claxons.

When Cole Hamels gives up three in the first three innings, he just douses the fire in the next frame.

When Martinez fails to charge a ball then makes a laughably poor throw, the world doesn't end.

"Just part of the game," Rollins said.

In a part of a season that no longer matters.

Does it?

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