Don’t Ice the Champagne Yet, Phillies Fans

The sweep of the Reds was great. Second-half prospects? Not so much

The All-Star break has arrived, and history tells us one thing, aside from the fact that the National League is expected to lose the Midsummer Classic once again: The Phillies are ready to make a move.

Throughout the team’s injury-plagued and somnolent first half, we have been reminded again and again that nothing that has happened so far—not low batting averages, not shaky bullpen pitching, not foul-mouthed rightfielders—is a real reason for concern. During the past three seasons, the Phils have played considerably better baseball after the American Leaguers asserted their dominance than they had before the All-Star break. That fact, coupled with some trade-deadline magic from the front office, was the reason for the team’s infuriating calm in the face of some calamitous happenings (some self-induced, others unavoidable). No matter how bad it might be in June or early July, August and September will be better.

That may well be true. The weekend’s dramatic four-game sweep of the NL Central-leading Reds could be the first step in a march back to the top of the division and league. Roy Halladay was overpowering Saturday night. Sunday, Cole Hamels showed an ability few thought he had to fight through some adversity. After losing seven of their previous 10 games, the squad rebounded nicely and posted the quartet of victories by a combined five runs, refusing to blink late in close games and even staging a memorable comeback Friday night that some consider a turning point.

Put it all together, and it points toward some big fun for the rest of the summer and beyond. We might all be staying up way too late again on October school nights and paying less attention to the town’s professional football team than its owner would prefer.

Not so fast.

Four wins do not clinch a division title or wild-card berth. The Phillies are still a hugely imperfect team, and even a miraculous, Lourdes-style recovery by Chase Utley will reverse that. The team that was supposed to be a run-scoring juggernaut has an aggregate batting average of .255, good for 21st among Major League teams. The back end of its pitching rotation is shaky, at best, with Joe Blanton’s struggling to get past the sixth inning, Kyle Kendrick unreliable and Jamie Moyer’s heading toward deep, uncharted waters for someone three years from qualifying for an AARP membership. And don’t even get me started on a bullpen that has just one lefthander and a closer whose manager doesn’t trust him to throw complete ninth innings.

Despite the four wins over the Reds, the Phillies remain erratic in all facets of the game and cannot guarantee they will sustain the momentum generated by the sweep.

Further, they cannot assure fans that the rest of the season will replicate the second-half charges of the past three. Yes, the previous success engenders confidence, but as those investment come-ons always warn us in the small print, “Past success is no guarantee of future performance.” We cannot count on a 13-homer month from Ryan Howard any more than we can rely on a 20% return from a mutual fund that raged forward a few years ago.

The frustrating thing here is that the Phillies seem to be counting on this second-half rally, as if it will occur automatically. The bats will come alive. The pitching will solidify. And GM Ruben Amaro will make another deadline deal that delivers a much-needed arm. (Roy Oswalt anybody?) That’s not how it happens, and fans are right to demand an attitude from the team that reflects urgency, rather than expectation. Many a franchise has waited patiently for a surge, only to be left at season’s end wondering what in the world happened. If the Phillies continue their cool, aloof ways, they may find themselves in the same predicament. Even though the NL remains inferior to its counterpart—as we’ll most likely find out again Tuesday night—it has improved, and another couple months of uneven play could land the Phillies in a crowded wild-card hunt they will no doubt find distasteful.

It’s great the Phillies hit the All-Star break on a high, but let’s not assume the four-game sweep of the Reds is the kick-start to a roaring second half. The Phillies remain imperfect and, worse, they appear overconfident. By counting on the successes of the past, they may well be ignoring the imperatives of the future. Nothing is guaranteed, and before the Phils can worry about beating the Yankees, they have to overcome the Mets and Braves. Instead of waiting for the past to repeat itself, the Phillies must change the way they do business right now.

After all, nothing is guaranteed. The National League might even win Tuesday night.

* * *
• Guess that performance by Jeffrey Lurie last year at the Michael Vick press conference was more show than substance. Training camp starts in two weeks, and it looks like Mr. White Linen will be at Lehigh. The time bomb continues to tick.
• Don’t worry about Evan Turner—yet. He wasn’t in game shape for the Sixers’ rookie-league games, but it is concerning that he had trouble finding a comfortable spot against a bunch of newcomers and reserves.
• Don’t forget about the Union now that the World Cup is over. The expansion outfit may be struggling, but its stadium and raucous game-day environment are well worth the effort.