Only in the last two weeks, with the kids headed back to school, have the Phillies dug through the National League East rubble and climbed ahead of the decimated Miami Marlins and the free-falling New York Mets.
First-place Washington and second-place Atlanta still remain far off in the distance even after the Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the Nationals Sunday with an impressive, 4-1 win over righthander Jordan Zimmermann at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies' fourth straight win completed a 5-2 stretch against the two best teams in baseball and provided proof that they do not want to sleepwalk to the finish line, especially against elevated competition.
Sunday's series finale also allowed Cliff Lee, who contributed seven innings and an RBI double, to avoid the indignity of the season going beyond Labor Day without him having a win at home.
"I like the fact that we really like to play, and we're starting to play better in just about every phase of the game," manager Charlie Manuel said afterward. "We can still hit better and play better, but at the same time, we like to play and we come out with a good attitude and a good mind-set, too."
It's always nice to have a good attitude, a positive approach, and a healthy respect for the game, but ultimately great players make the biggest difference.
The Phillies got Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back just before the all-star break and they have made a difference. Their numbers do not look all that healthy - Howard is hitting .245 with 61 strikeouts in 151 at-bats and Utley is hitting .249 - but they have given the lineup more power and more presence.
"That changes the way somebody attacks our lineup," Manuel said.
It also changes the way the Phillies attack.
Utley, for example, had only two singles in nine at-bats during the series with the Nationals, but he stole three bases - one in the eighth inning Friday night and two in the eighth inning Saturday - and scored an insurance run in each game.
So we know now, as if we didn't before, that it's important to have Utley and Howard around for a full season even if they are not the same players they used to be.
Manuel was also quick to laud the work of some of the guys who have stepped in and played since the trade-deadline departures of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. Domonic Brown has played better than both Victorino and Pence since moving into the Phillies' lineup. Kevin Frandsen has shown that he at least deserves a spot on the roster next summer, and catcher Erik Kratz has drawn more raves than anybody.
"I'm honestly surprised he hasn't got a job in the big leagues and stuck over the past few years," Lee said of Kratz. "I don't know what people aren't seeing in him. To me, he's just doing what he does. He's a big, strong guy who calls a good game, keeps the running game in check, throws out runners, and has plenty of power at the plate."
What Kratz should be going forward is a backup catcher who allows Manuel to rest Carlos Ruiz more than once a week.
The bullpen contributed 61/3 scoreless innings during the three-game sweep of the Nationals and has a 3.55 earned run average since the all-star break after posting a 4.76 eyesore during the dismal first half.
Manuel said the bullpen, despite its recent success, remains high on the list of priorities to upgrade this offseason. The manager also pleads for a run-producing bat every chance he gets.
Yes, the Phillies still need help, but they have proved over the last five weeks that they were not nearly as bad as they appeared to be during the first 14 weeks of this season.
"I think for the most part, we underperformed for a majority of the first half," Lee said. "Recently, we're starting to play the way we should and the way we expect to play. For us, it's not as much of a surprise to win or to play the way we have. It's more of a surprise as bad as we played early. We always expect to win."
Contact Bob Brookover at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @brookob.