Phillies in the chase for NL East
Defending divison champ jumps ahead of Braves for lead
For 99 days this summer, first place in the National League East belonged to the Atlanta Braves. The Philadelphia Phillies, winners of three straight division titles and two straight league championships, were reduced to also-ran status, spending most of their time licking their wounds. And there were plenty of wounds to lick.
Eighteen of Philadelphia players spent time on the disabled list. The casualty count included six regulars -- Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz. The team drifted along, falling as many as seven games behind on July 22.
But the Phillies weren't done. A seven-game winning streak helped them move to within two games of the top by Aug. 3. They hung around for the next month, never more than three games behind, before moving into first place on Sept. 7, poised for a furious sprint to the finish.
Through Sept. 14 they had reeled off another six straight wins to take a two-game lead, but the Phillies aren't getting comfortable the rest of the way.
Looming ahead are six more games with the Braves, three at home and three to finish the season in Atlanta. The race could come down to those last three head-to-head meetings. Utley, who has become one of the team leaders, smiled at that suggestion. "That's too far ahead to look," he said. "There's lots of baseball to play before that. We have to worry about today's game first."
So how come the injuries didn't doom the Phillies?
"It speaks to the character of this team," said Utley, who missed 43 games from the middle of June until the end of August with a sprained left thumb that required ligament surgery. "No matter what obstacles there are in front of us, we don't give up. Guys stepped in and got the job done."
Perhaps the best example of that is Wilson Valdez, a journeyman infielder who has logged time with five other Major League teams assembling a career batting average of .222. Valdez played second when Utley was hurt, then shortstop when Rollins was out and third base when Polanco went on the disabled list.
The only place he didn't play was first base where Howard, the Phillies cleanup hitter, missed 16 games with a left ankle sprain. Reserve Ross Gload, who also logged DL time, and Mike Sweeney, an August pickup from Seattle, filled in. Sweeney was thrilled to find himself in the middle of a pennant race.
"To be a part of this, has been a joy," Sweeney said. "To come to the park every day and be part of a winning team, it's been just great."
"It's been a tough year," said Howard. "But every team has injuries. You have to give credit to the guys who stepped in for everybody that went down."
When Victorino went out with a strained abdominal muscle, Jayson Werth moved from right field to center and Ben Francisco and Domonick Brown patrolled right field. "`It's been like that all season," Utley said. "Guys have stepped up and filled in. And the pitching staff has done real well all year. Good pitching beats good hitting."
A deadline trade for Roy Oswalt gave the Phillies a second ace to join Roy Halladay. Oswalt won six of his first seven decisions and pitched to a 1.97 earned run average over that stretch. Cole Hamels has allowed just one run in his last 31 2/3 innings and Halladay's 18 wins leads the league and includes a perfect game.
Another factor has been the Phillies' turnaround on the road. After struggling away from home -- the low point may have been three straight shutouts in May at the hands of the Mets in New York -- the Phillies have become more comfortable visiting other teams' ballparks. After losing 12 of 15 away from home, Philadelphia won five straight road series beginning in August and 15 of 18 games away from home.
That may be a good sign. Those last three games against the Braves are on the road.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.