Phillies' fortunes suddenly looking up

ASSOCIATED PRESS Carlos Ruiz takes a swing during his first at-bat of the season. He was 1-for-4.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Carlos Ruiz takes a swing during his first at-bat of the season. He was 1-for-4.
Posted: April 30, 2013

NEW YORK - Suddenly, the idea of the Phillies being a player in this summer's National League playoff race doesn't seem as far-fetched as it did, oh, Friday afternoon. With one game remaining in April, Chooch back behind the plate and the reclaimed Roy Halladay set to pitch tomorrow night, the Phillies could finish the month just a game under .500 and possibly tied with the Washington Nationals.

Yeah, sure, it's too early for that kind of scoreboard watching, and yeah, sure, the team they swept over the weekend was the New York Mets, not the Nats and not the Braves. But as Cole Hamels said after notching his first win in yesterday's 5-1 victory: "It's small steps to get to where we want to go."

They will go there now with Carlos Ruiz, who played in his first game after serving a 25-game suspension for using a banned amphetamine. Chooch doubled and drove the ball deep in two other at-bats and showed so little visible signs of rust that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel joked he may play every single game from here on in.

At least it seemed like a joke.

"That's OK with me," Ruiz said.

And they will go there with a new Ryan Howard, or more correctly, the old one. His two-out, two-run, pinch-hit double in the seventh inning broke a 1-1 tie and extended his hitting streak to 10 games. Howard now has 10 runs batted in over the last five games, and is hitting .351 during his streak.

"Just finding grass out there," he said, when asked if something had clicked. "I felt I have been swinging it pretty good. Had a couple of bad games here and there but for the most part I feel like I've hit balls hard . . . Now it's just about continuing to see them fall."

The small step to yesterday's series-sweeping victory over the Mets began with a dropped foul ball in the seventh inning of a 1-1 tie. The two-out reprieve, which came with nobody on, seemed benign at the time, but by now we should know that nothing that happens between these two teams is benign.

Catcher John Buck's muff of Laynce Nix' foul pop triggered four straight two-out hits, the centerpiece Howard's double. The Phillies emerged from their half of the inning with a 4-1 lead.

"This game's a lot of luck," Manuel said. "And that 'if' is a big word."

The rally allowed Hamels, who had been lifted for the pinch-hitting Nix, to prosper from an outing in which he allowed just two hits but walked six. Just 62 of his 111 pitches were strikes and he walked the bases loaded in the fourth inning without getting burned by it.

"It wasn't any particular pitch," he said. "I had times I wasn't able to locate a certain pitch and then all of a sudden in a big situation I was able to find it and locate it to get an out. I wasn't straying away from any of the pitches. I was throwing them all for strikes. And for balls."

And if this was any other team - maybe it doesn't turn out so good . . . But it was the Mets, who hit .186 with 81 strikeouts during their 3-6 homestand, and seem to be settling into who we thought they were going to be after a surprising start.

That's the alternate assessment, that this weekend was less about your team finding itself as it was their peculiar domination of their once hated rivals. Rivals? There is no rivalry. Several Phillies called the Mets "tough," but honestly . . .

You think your bullpen is bad? The Mets' is vying with St. Louis for the worst in the National League.

New York has now lost six straight games to the Phillies at Citi Field dating back to last summer, and nine of the last 10 games the teams have played overall. They have been outpitched and outslugged and, when neither of those occurred, they have been generous.

Simply put, the uniform should say "Meds" when this team plays the Phillies.

"You get going," Manuel said. "The momentum shifts to your team. You get more relaxed and you start playing and things start to happen for you."

Can they remain this healthy once they change their diet? Well, after two games in Cleveland, there are four with the Miami Marlins, another team assembled to be beaten. But after that comes a seven-game road stretch against the Giants and Diamondbacks, and later in May, seven straight against Washington and Boston.

"We've won three in a row and I think that's how we have to look at it," Manuel said. "This one's gone, by us. If we start thinking like that, seems like we always play better."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon