The Phillies’ Magic Number Is…

The fast start is nice, but let's not get ahead of ourselves

With nine games down in the 2011 MLB season, here’s what we know so far:

The Phillies’ magic number is 152 to tie and 153 to win the East.

Cole Hamels doesn’t stink.

The bullpen is pretty good.

The team has discovered the magic of small ball.

One more thing: With 153 games remaining, it’s absolutely ridiculous to consider the above statements meaningful—except the Cole Hamels declaration. That’s 100 percent accurate in April, June or December.

Since we spend months waiting for baseball to deliver us from winter’s evil clutches, it’s natural to devote extra energy to the first few weeks of the season. In addition to the warming temperatures, we are treated to statistical anomalies that lead us to believe Starting Pitcher X is on his way to a Cy Young Award or Cleanup Hitter Y has Triple Crown potential. By July, the hurler is nursing a 6-7 record and a sore shoulder, and the slugger is wondering why he’s gone 17 days without a home run.

While it’s nice for your favorite team to begin the season in strong fashion, the quick start could be the result of nothing more than a fortuitous schedule (say, against the rotten Astros, stinky Mets and overrated Braves) or the early confluence of solid performances across the lineup, with all probability models suggesting a crash in the near future.

The Phillies’ 7-2 start is quite welcome, given the team’s spate of injuries, the uncertainty about its corner outfield and the questions about the bullpen. It has been reassuring to see Roy Halladay’s dominance, Roy Oswalt’s fast start and Hamels’s rebound. It would have been nice if Cliff Lee hadn’t been so generous Friday night in Atlanta, but he didn’t get much help from Shane Victorino, either. (Can we finally put to rest the ridiculous notion that Victorino is a better fielder than Garry Maddox was? Really, it isn’t even close.)

Jose Contreras has been reassuring in the closer’s spot, and Ryan Madson looks strong as usual in his setup role. The newfangled lineup has produced, and the bench has been productive. In other words, print those World Series tickets!

If the first nine games of the season were true indicators of how the next five-plus months were going to transpire, we would be preparing for some cold October weather in Cleveland (the Indians have won seven straight), an insurrection in Boston (hello, fourth-place Red Sox) and a need for double lattes in Seattle (the Mariners are rotten, as usual).

There is no season that is more about the long haul than the Major League Baseball campaign. It’s twice as long as the basketball and hockey seasons and requires much more endurance than the NFL’s 16 games. A lightning-fast start in any of those leagues almost guarantees a postseason berth, thanks to the NBA and NHL’s bloated formats and the sheer math of professional football. Start 8-1 in the NFL, and it would take an epic collapse to avoid the playoffs. Break from the gate 40-10 in the MLB, and you still have 112 games to sputter and die.

By starting 7-2, the Phillies have done several things. First, they’ve proven that injuries to Chase Utley and Brad Lidge and the departure of Jayson Werth were not crippling, at least in the short term. They’ve sent a message to the NL East competition that despite some adversity, they are still big and bad. Taking two of the three in Atlanta was a nice way to reinforce that. You’re next, D.C. and the Fish. Yep, it’s the near-perfect way to begin the season, and in two months, it may mean absolutely nothing.

That’s why it’s crazy stuff to get too wrapped up in any one game—or nine, for that matter. It may have been difficult to watch Lee throw the equivalent of batting practice Friday against the Braves, but that outing will hardly define him going forward. I can pretty much guarantee you that Victorino is not going to hit .400 this year, although three bills is a distinct possibility. In other words, the first 10 days of the season are subject to change.

Don’t worry. The Phillies aren’t heading into the tank, no more than the Astros are heading to the World Series. It’s just that all fans should be feeling right now is pretty strong about the start and confident the team’s management knows what it’s doing. The rest is up to the players and fate. Stay healthy, and this team should be formidable all year. Sustain some more injuries, and all of this good-time fun might disappear.

Nine games down, 153 to go. Stay hydrated, people. It’s a long way home.

And there’s a lot more to learn.

* Farewell, Manny Ramirez, and remember that admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame is $19.50 for adults. That’s the only way you’re getting in. Talk all you want about your stats, but two juicing penalties pretty much reveal the secrets to your success.

* Anybody who watched Sunday’s Miami/Boston rout and still wants the Sixers to play the Heat had better get to the doctor, pronto. It doesn’t matter if Lou Williams’s hammy is ready or not, the locals wouldn’t stand a chance in South Beach.

* Forget about that loss in Buffalo Friday night. The Flyers will take out the Sabres in six games. The locals are too experienced and have too much scoring depth to lose a first-round series. Of course, it’s imperative to win Thursday night’s opener, the better to chase away any memories of the season-ending slide.