May Daze

Last night's win was huge. But this Phillies team is still far from perfect

Everybody who follows baseball knows that there is no such thing as a “must game” in early May. That’s like looking at Junior’s kindergarten report card and declaring him ready for post-graduate work in astrophysics, just because he sat still at story time and refrained from eating paste. But with the odious Mets in town this past weekend, happily flexing their muscles after a run of prosperity against the likes of the sagging Dodgers and flailing Braves, it was pretty important to let them know who was still boss in the National League. [SIGNUP]

The Phils hadn’t exactly done that Friday night, when Kyle Kendrick continued his frustrating season by staggering through another start in a 9-1 loss. After Roy Halladay (please, Philadelphia fans, learn how to pronounce his name) restored some order by stifling the visitors Friday, it was crucial for the Phils to win the deciding matchup of the three-game series. Yes, it was May. Yes, there were 138 games left after it. Yes, getting too high or low after early-season contests could be grounds for a suite at the Laughing Academy.

But it was still a big game. The Mets had been awful last year. Injuries, in-fighting and their inherent choking-dog personality had conspired to push them near the bottom of the NL East. Their top players entered this season wondering whether they would return to previous form. The unwashed Mets fans pined for the days when their heroes would at least near the finish line before disintegrating. They came to Philadelphia having won nine of 10 and were feeling strong. Taking the series from the Phillies would embolden them. It could well give them the steam necessary to go the distance, or at least get in position to stage another heartbreaking collapse, as they had in 2007 and ’08.

It certainly looked good for the Mets, what with ace Johan Santana taking the mound against Pop-Pop Moyer, who had been particularly prone to throwing the slow, straight ball this season and had struggled even to get out of the sixth inning. Though it was still only May, and even though so much baseball remained, this was a perfect set-up that not even the Mets could mess up. Santana had given up all of one run in his previous 21-and-change innings. By 11:00 Sunday night, New York’s Second Baseball Team could well have sent a loud message to their nemesis: We’re back.

Instead, the Phillies scorched Santana for nine in the fourth, sent him staggering to the dugout and reasserted their primacy in the division, not only taking back first place but also making it clear that it takes a lot more than some bounce in a team’s step to win a big game in Philadelphia. The Mets may well be in this for the long haul, but Sunday’s win was notable because it didn’t allow New York to boost its confidence at the Phillies’ expense. The Mets can do that the next few days against the Reds, but not here.

Sunday’s win notwithstanding, this Phillies team remains extremely imperfect and loaded with questions. Yes, there have been injury problems, and it will be good to get Joe Blanton (Monday) and Jimmy Rollins (soon, we hope) back to full service. But Kendrick has been a disaster lately. While Moyer got the win Sunday, his ERA is just south of six. J.A. Happ’s tender forearm is serious cause for concern, because that kind of injury doesn’t heal easily. The bullpen is a mess, and Cole Hamels, the man we were told would make us forget about Cliff Lee (7 IP, 3H, 0R, 0BB, 8K in his first start last Friday), has an ERA of 5.25 and the same inconsistent mound personality he showed last year. The Phillies may well get through the NL East with their big bats, supreme confidence and Halladay, but until the pitching staff shapes up, any hopes of considerable post-season success are merely delusions.

Again, it’s only May. The games don’t matter all that much now, except that a win in the second month of the season counts just as much as one does in the sixth — especially against the Mets. The Phils have been beset by nagging injuries (and Ryan Madson’s boneheaded dropkick that reinforced the contention that he lacks the makeup to be a closer) and are traditionally slow starters. All of this is true. But let’s not be silly enough to believe that just because everything worked out the past few seasons that it must in 2010. Showing the Mets who’s boss Sunday night was big. Showing the rest of the National League that the Phillies aren’t loaded with weaknesses is much more important and will play out over a long stretch of time. The Phillies need better pitching, and they need it soon.

Even a Kindergartener knows that.


• Unless Doug Collins (or Avery Johnson or anybody else the Sixers are considering as their next coach) is bringing a shooting guard and scoring big man with him, he’ll have the same relative level of success as his predecessors.

• That’s a damn shame about Eldrick Woods’ performance at Quail Hollow. So did they finish the tournament after he didn’t make the cut? I wasn’t paying attention.

• If Brian Boucher is going to continue his strong play in goal, it’s up to his teammates to tighten things up in front of him, or things could get out of hand pretty quickly for the Flyers.

MICHAEL BRADLEY fights for truth and justice in the world of sports from his secure World Headquarters in suburban Philadelphia. His work appears in Sporting News, Athlon publications, Hoop Magazine and Slam, and he is a regular contributor to Sirius Mad Dog Radio and 97.5 The Fanatic. He writes about sports for The Philly Post every Monday.