Phillies vs. Yankees: Get Ready for Atomic Wedgies?

Yesterday's Phils win was nice, but the series against the World Champions couldn't come at a worse time

Phillies fans were probably delirious — or completely stunned — Sunday when in the fourth inning their heroes hung up what passes for a “crooked number” against the Red Sox. The four-run frame was a welcome sight for a team that had failed to reach that figure in 18 of the previous 24 games (much less single innings), and it featured that rarest of occurrences: a Raul Ibanez home run.

It was a much needed outburst, especially since the Red Sox had bullied the Phils in the previous two games, outscoring them 22-4, taking their lunch money and applying figurative atomic wedgies to the pitching staff. The four-spot was also appreciated since the Phillies had loaded the bases in the first with two outs and came away with zero runs, an all too familiar outcome over the past three-plus weeks. [SIGNUP]

There was mirth and general merriment after the 5-3 victory, especially since the “power surge” was accompanied by Cole Hamels’ strong mound performance. Maybe this was the game that would break the slump. Perhaps the drought was over. If this were Hollywood, we could cue the montage of the next several games, during which the reborn Phillies bats would slug their way through a variety of overmatched rivals and return to their championship form.

Despite the best efforts of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, this is not Hollywood. And the next week does not feature a collection of willing patsies. Instead, the continued interleague festival includes American League powerhouses, beginning with the Phils’ nemesis: the Yankees and ending with the AL Central leading Twins.

When we last encountered Team Checkbook, it was celebrating a 27th World Championship and exposing the home team’s weaknesses (pitching depth, bullpen unreliability, etc.). Phillies fans and management spent the off-season wondering how best to tweak a roster that might have to see New York again in the World Series. Well, here are the Yankees again, and this isn’t October. Instead, it’s a big regular-season series against a first-place team that is tied with Tampa Bay for the most wins in the majors.

And it couldn’t come at a worse time for the Phillies, who are hardly prepared for high-level rematches. Sunday’s win was nice, but it came after a pair of debacles that made the team look like the last thing it wanted to do was face the AL’s finest, in June, October or March. The team’s prolonged power outage, the questions raised in the wake of binocular-gate and some work by Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton (5 IP, 22 H, 18 R, 18 ER) that insulted even batting-practice pitchers, makes a visit to Casa Steinbrenner no tonic. The Yankees have won 11 of 14 and are an MLB-best 22-7 at home. They will throw their three best pitchers, C.C. Sabathia (6-3), A.J. Burnett (6-4) and Andy Pettitte (8-1) and no doubt can’t wait to reassert their primacy against the team they vanquished last fall.

The Phils, meanwhile, step warily back into the Bronx with the fragile confidence of a young driver who has just negotiated a leafy neighborhood street and now must endure the Schuylkill at rush hour. Not the best thing for a team’s self-esteem, no matter how veteran and accomplished. The Phillies find themselves in the middle of the egalitarian NL East, closer to the basement than first place and facing the reality that significant trading-deadline help is unlikely to arrive. Reports that Houston ace Roy Oswalt is available have no doubt triggered fans’ salivary glands, and the fact that the Astros’ GM is Ed Wade means it’s possible Oswalt could be had for some old baseball cards and a sharp pencil. Well, you can forget about it. Oswalt makes $15 million this season and is due $16 mil in 2011. If the Phillies weren’t willing to pay Cliff Lee (don’t get me started) nine large this year, they aren’t going to give Oswalt nearly twice that next season. No dice.

We still have six weeks to worry about whether the cavalry will ride to town on healthy steeds or carnival ponies. For now, we have to fret about a three-gamer with the defending champions, at a time when a trip to Pittsburgh or Arizona would be far more appropriate. The Phillies remain incapable of sustaining offensive fire, which can absolutely be attributed to Jimmy Rollins’ continued absence but is just as the fault of 3-4-5 hitters Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth’s prolonged futility. Even if Rollins were back and generating excitement at the top of the lineup, there would be no guarantee the men behind him could do anything about it. Keep in mind that two hitter Placido Polanco is hitting .400 in his last 11 games and has scored four runs during that stretch.

The Phillies’ trip to Yankee Stadium is less about revenge and unfinished business than it is about a team’s quest for consistency and prosperity. No one should be hoping for an exorcism of last fall’s demons, rather a continued sign of forward progress. In fact, it’s not unrealistic or mean to root for the Phillies merely to make a respectable showing, rather than the awful performance they turned in Friday and Saturday in Boston. At this point, against the Yankees, that’s a worthwhile goal.

That and a couple more four-run “explosions.”

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* What a job by the Flyers. We can’t praise their post-season run enough. But don’t be fooled. Pittsburgh and Washington won’t choke next season, so the locals must get better. A lot better.

* Thank goodness 16-year old sailor Abby Sunderland is safe after high drama on the Indian Ocean. But let’s stop sending teenagers on round-the-world junkets for a while. A trip to 7-Eleven in the family car is harrowing enough.

* The Sixers get closer to their big (draft) day, and the news is all about Evan Turner. Stay tuned next week for assessments of the Ohio State swingman from league insiders and a look at the team’s other options.