But for all of the Phillies' flaws, there is one aspect of the team that is an unquestioned strength, one solid tenet of faith for those who still believe that 2013 will bring brighter days. Simply put, they know what it takes. Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young, Carlos Ruiz, even Delmon Young - they have been fixtures in the major league postseason in recent years. And while winning know-how might sound a bit trite, it is certainly worth mentioning as the Phillies once again find themselves on the precipice of .500, threatening to break off the kind of run that has eluded them thus far.
"Five hundred's really not on our radar," said Michael Young, whose two-run double in the sixth inning provided the pivotal blow in a 4-1 win over the Nationals. "Being over .500 is a hell of a lot better than being under, but that will still send us home on the last day of the regular season. In order for us to get where we want to go, we have to make sure we try and get better. I think for a while one thing we were talking about was getting hot and running off this huge win streak, and we're not talking about that anymore. We're trying to win the game on that particular night."
The ardent believers among us will look at the last couple of weeks as evidence that all of the talk of the Phillies as trade-deadline sellers is nonsense spewed by the faint of heart. But the reason that talk exists and the reason to question that talk are one in the same, which is what makes the month of July such an interesting time in the life of this franchise. The Phillies have assets whom clearer contenders will covet, because they have assets who know how to win and who are still capable of doing so. They have pitchers such as Hamels, who turned in the most important performance of his season, pitching seven strong innings and then retiring Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth with the bases loaded in the eighth on a night when Jonathan Papelbon was unable to close. They have Cliff Lee, who will look to continue this minirun tonight against Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez. They have Michael Young, who has established himself as an important piece of a new-look lineup, and they have Utley, who tallied another double.
"We've been kind of growing, if that makes sense," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think we're definitely starting to come together and pull for each other."
The 2013 Phillies have a funny way of defying conventional wisdom, and they once again have arrived at the threshold that has existed as a sort of Sisyphean mountaintop for the majority of the season. They are one game under .500. They are riding a wave of positive energy after series wins against two of the National League's leading contenders. They can do no worse than split this four-game series against the second-place Nationals.
For all of the talk about underachieving, there is plenty of room to argue that they are actually exceeding their capabilities. Their $25 million-a-year slugger is on the disabled list, as is their ace setup man. Their best hitter is a 25-year-old outfielder who had to win a job in spring training after an offseason spent listening to trade rumors. Roy Halladay had shoulder surgery, Jonathan Pettibone remains in the rotation.
And yet here they are, on the verge of taking a third straight series from a team they will need to track down in order to qualify for the postseason. There is a lot of baseball left to be played before July 31, the six games in St. Louis and Detroit immediately preceding it perhaps more important than this current homestand. But the Phillies are once again giving the skeptics reason to pause. Now, those reasons must continue.
DN Members Only : Jesse Biddle is biding his time.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy