David Murphy: A peek into NL East's future

Rookie Matt Harvey went seven strong innings for the Mets.
Rookie Matt Harvey went seven strong innings for the Mets. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 21, 2012

NEW YORK - The Phillies did not have to look far to see the changing face of the National League East: 60 feet, 6 inches, to be exact. For seven innings Wednesday night, 23-year-old fireballer Matt Harvey was the best player at Citi Field, his mid-90s fastball and lethal slider mowing through veteran hitters as if they were playing in the minor leagues.

"Very, very impressive," Cole Hamels said.

Thanks to a two-run homer by Ryan Howard with two outs in ninth, the Phillies could afford to marvel. A 3-2 victory over the Mets kept alive a flicker of hope for the postseason. More significant than their four-game deficit is the three teams they are chasing for the final wild-card spot in the National League. With 13 left to play, the odds are not in their favor, and that is putting it kindly. But victories like the one they recorded on Wednesday night do provide hope: If not for the immediate future, then for the longer term, because once upon a time this was a game the Phillies would have lost.

They entered the night having won 26 of their 58 games against divisional opponents, and even after Howard's last-out heroics, the Phillies were still headed toward their worst record against the NL East since 2005, when they went 38-37. Last year, they went 43-29. In each of the two preceding seasons, they went 44-28.

The difference lies not just in an aging, injury-plagued roster, but in the competition that the roster is now charged with facing. In spring training, the Phillies acknowledged that the National League East was no longer a division ripe for domination. In the regular season, they have learned just how far it has come.

Granted, this was not the same collection of players that had spent much of the previous 5 years mashing its way through the division. But it might not have mattered, not with the way Harvey dominated the hitting zone, mowing through hitters with power and precision, retiring 19 of the 23 batters he faced.

Even after Howard stole the headline with his homer off lefty Josh Edgin to erase a 2-1 deficit, the memory of Harvey's performance was difficult to shake. It began with a home run by Jimmy Rollins, his 20th since the start of June. It ended with Harvey not allowing another Phillies hit.

Harvey walked three and struck out seven before leaving the game for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. It was his last outing of the season, the Mets content to shut down their budding star for the final couple of weeks.

Barring injury, he will return next season. By that point, the Phillies will be well aware of the challenge they face as they begin the long climb back toward the top of the division.

At the start of play Wednesday, the rest of the National League had combined to go just 158-191 against the NL East. The East, by comparison, had combined to go 100-83 against the Central and 91-75 against the West.

The resurgence of the division can be traced to pitchers like Harvey. The last few seasons have seen the arrivals of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez in Washington, of Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Beachy. In Atlanta, four pitchers under the age of 26 have started at least 13 games for the Braves. In Washington, only six of the Nationals' 146 games heading into Wednesday had been started by a pitcher older than 28 (and that includes two starts that Edwin Jackson made after turning 29 on Sept. 9).

"Younger pitching and better pitching," Phils manager Charlie Manuel said. "In the major leagues, the last 2 or 3 years, the pitching has really improved. A whole lot. There's a lot of guys who throw hard, but not only can they throw hard, but they can command their stuff."

For the foreseeable future, division titles will be won and lost with games like Wednesday night. The bulk of it was dominated by the starters, Hamels countering Harvey with 10 strikeouts, one walk and two runs in six innings.

With one out to spare, the Mets' bullpen finally broke. Howard played a big role in breaking it and must continue to do so. Harvey and his counterparts in the division are not going anywhere. The challenge is the Phillies' to meet. On Wednesday night, they did just that.

Contact Dave Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at philly.com/HighCheese.


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