"You guys know, it's very important," said Brown, who has 23 home runs, one shy of Carlos Gonzalez for the NL lead and the most by a Phillie before the All-Star break since Ryan Howard hit 28 in 2008. "Division rivals, the guys are in first place in the division - [Saturday] night was a tough one, but that shows you the chemistry and the leadership that we have in this clubhouse to not get down and to just keep battling."
The last month-plus illustrates the conundrum currently facing the front office. Since May 28, the Phillies have taken two of three from the Red Sox, two of three from the Nationals, two of three from the Pirates and two of three from the Braves, all of whom entered yesterday with records above .500. They have averaged better than 4.5 runs per game. Yet they were just 19-19 during that stretch, with 15 of those losses coming against the Brewers, Twins, Rockies, Mets, Padres and Dodgers, all of whom entered yesterday with records equal to or worse than the Phillies.
The big question with this team isn't whether it is able to play with the best teams in the majors, but whether it is able to play the kind of consistent baseball required to roll off stretches of wins against the worst teams. And the biggest question mark involves the pitching. As much as the lineup was to blame for the Phillies' putrid performance in April and May, the emergence of Brown and the return of Chase Utley from the disabled list and the recent production from Delmon Young have turned the unit into much less of a liability. In fact, if you were able to magically transport the Phillies into the postseason and match them up in a seven-game series with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels both pitching twice, their opponent would have to take them quite seriously.
But Hamels and Lee will not be pitching four out of every seven games the rest of the way. Gambling that the Phillies make the postseason means gambling on Utley and Delmon Young to remain healthy and hot. Moreso, it means gambling on young pitchers like Jonathan Pettibone and the majority of the bullpen.
Yesterday, Pettibone continued to hold up his end of the bargain, limiting the Braves to one run on five hits and one walk with six strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. Reliever J.C. Ramirez retired just two of the six batters he faced in the seventh, allowing a pair of runs, including a solo home run by Chris Johnson. This time, the lead was big enough to hold.
The Phillies need to win six of their remaining seven games to enter the All-Star break with a winning record. Nothing says they need to decide on a trade-deadline strategy by then. When they resume play on July 19, they will embark on a nine-game road trip that finishes with six games in St. Louis and Detroit, two of the favorites to represent their leagues in the World Series.
"I think they understand the importance of these games," manager Charlie Manuel said, "and also they understand the importance of the games all the way up to the trade deadline."
One year ago today, the Phillies were 37-50, 14 games behind the Nationals in the National League East. On the day they traded away Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, they were 46-57. But the stakes are higher this year. In Utley, they will have one of the most valuable hitters available on the trade market, one who will have plenty of incentive to sign somewhere besides Philadelphia when he becomes a free agent after the season. In Jonathan Papelbon, they have the most valuable closer, and a number of contenders in desperate need of bullpen help. They also have less of a reason to think they can contend in future seasons by hanging tight. Roy Halladay will be a free agent coming off shoulder surgery. Ryan Howard will be coming off a second straight subpar season with a knee injury that could require surgery. Carlos Ruiz will be a free agent, although one who is a safer bet to re-sign than somebody like Utley or Halladay.
But they also have players like Brown and Ruf to provide varying amounts of hope for the future. For the present, Utley and Papelbon are the two biggest questions. A second straight winning series over a contender only further muddled the projection of what the Phillies will do.
DN Members Only : John Smallwood isn't buying what the Phillies are selling anymore.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy