Phils still have hope in weak NL East

Cliff Lee is not backing off comments that he made during the Phillies last road trip that some construed as a trade request. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Lee is not backing off comments that he made during the Phillies last road trip that some construed as a trade request. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 19, 2013

NEW YORK - Cliff Lee has seen the numbers. He knows the Phillies were outscored by 45 runs in their first 96 games but entered the all-star break at .500. It is less a function of his team than a result of the National League East's occupants.

Yes, Lee said, the Phillies have played their best baseball in the last three weeks. But . . .

"Lucky for us, the Braves haven't really run away with it," Lee said. "As bad as we've played, we're within striking distance. It's not my job to make those decisions, whether we are buyers or sellers. But I really feel lucky we are in the position we are right now."

Luck will carry them for so long. The unofficial start of the second half is Friday at Citi Field, where the atmosphere will be decidedly less festive than it was during Tuesday's 84th All-Star Game. The sporting world's attention will be elsewhere while the Phillies attempt to legitimize their contention.

The quagmire that is the NL East provides hope. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is said to be inclined to make a run at the postseason because no one has overwhelmed the competition.

As difficult as it is to believe, the Phillies have played better than any NL East team during the last three months. They are 42-38 since April 18. Atlanta is 41-39; Washington is 39-41.

"We got off to a really hot start," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We have come back. We have played above .500 baseball, but no one has run away with it. With the Nationals, they're only going to get better. They haven't been playing like they normally should be playing. The Phillies are great. They have a great pitching staff. It will be a fun race."

Freeman said he sees the Phillies sticking around because of their "veteran guys." And when asked if he expects the favored Nationals to make a push, he chuckled.

"You're always waiting for it," Freeman said. "Any team can go on a surge."

Only Atlanta posted a positive run differential at the break, making the National League East the lone division with just one such team. Only Miami, San Diego, and Milwaukee had worse run differentials than the Phillies in the NL. Those teams are in last place.

Furthermore, the Phillies have never made the postseason when possessing a negative run differential through 96 games. Their minus-45 figure is the franchise's worst through 96 games since 1997. Those Phillies were 68-94 under first-year manager Terry Francona.

The Phillies have flourished against this weak division. They are 24-14 against NL East opponents and 24-34 against everyone else. Of their 66 remaining games, 38 are against divisional rivals. They play nine of 13 to start August against either Atlanta or Washington, which is one reason that Amaro could delay his trade decisions until after the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Amaro could regret a deal in July if that stretch buries his team. For a player to be traded in August, he must clear waivers.

The time to ascend is now. The Braves could play Friday without Freeman and their entire outfield - Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and B.J. Upton. All four players are injured. B.J. Upton is on the disabled list.

"Everybody will have their injuries," said Freeman, who wore a soft cast on his left hand to the All-Star Game. "Ours stacked up real fast. Hopefully we can get out there and tread water until we're all healthy again."

"Right now," Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said, "it's wide open for everyone."

That is why Amaro portrayed the Phillies as buyers immediately before the break. But opinions at this time of year can change with a string of bad nights. As Domonic Brown said, "If we don't start out hot, you never know what could happen before the trade deadline."


Contact Matt Gelb

at mgelb@phillynews.com.

Follow on Twitter @magelb

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