At the quarter pole of the 2012 season, the Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in unfamiliar territory—staring up at the rest of the National League East. And while the Phightins are off to their slowest start in the last five years, there's still reason to believe Philadelphia can claim its sixth consecutive division crown.
Here are five good reasons to believe.
The biggest reason the Phillies are still serious contenders in the NL East is the same reason many experts picked Philadelphia to represent the National League in the World Series. Philly's starting rotation remains the class of the division and, arguably, all of baseball.
You have to like the chances of any team that can trot out Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels three out of every five days. Halladay is off to another solid start, Lee's 1.95 earned run average ranks fourth among all big leaguers and Hamels is currently tied for the league-lead with six wins.
But the starting pitching support hasn't stopped there. Vance Worley has followed up a sensational rookie season with a solid start to his sophomore campaign, posting a 3-2 record through his first seven starts to go along with a respectable 3.07 ERA. Meanwhile, Joe Blanton has rounded out the rotation going six or more innings in seven of his eight starts and surrendering more than three earned runs just twice.
Through the first 40 games, Lee and Worley have each made trips to the 15-day disabled list, but they've been nothing more than precautionary moves. If Philly's rotation can stay relatively healthy, the Phightins should remain in the hunt all season long.
The Phillies have boasted one of baseball's most potent offenses over the last handful of years. While this year's group hasn't shown the consistency and explosiveness of seasons past, the most consistent offensive spark has been the surprising contributions from catcher Carlos Ruiz.
Entering Saturday evening, Chooch leads all Phillies regulars in hits (43), batting average (.371), RBI (29), on-base percentage (.415) and slugging percentage (.621). A rather impressive start for a career .271 hitter who's never driven in more than 54 runs in a season.
Because of his key offensive contributions, Philadelphia's everyday catcher has played in 36 of his team's first 40 games and continues to be one of the top defensive catchers and best signal-callers in the game today.
On a roster that features six former All-Stars, it has been the surprising Ruiz that has guided the Phillies offense through the first quarter of the season. If Ruiz can continue swinging his hot bat and the rest of Philadelphia's offense can find its stride, the Phillies will be a force to be reckoned with moving forward.
It's a testament to the current players on the roster that this year's Phillies team is where it's at considering they've played 40 games without the services of both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
In Howard and Utley, Philadelphia is without 474 career home runs, 1,558 RBI, 1,364 runs and eight combined All-Star appearances. More importantly, the Phillies are without the two offensive pillars that have guided this team to five consecutive NL East crowns, two National League pennants and the 2008 World Series championship.
The latest reports out of Philadelphia state that both stars could be back in the lineup as early as June. Howard is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered while making the final out last season while Utley is still battling sore knees that have plagued him since last season.
Howard is expected to return sooner than Utley, but if Philadelphia could get both stars back in the lineup before the All-Star break, the Phillies would be able to make a second-half run with its full complement.
Philadelphia's big offseason acquisition last Fall was closer Jonathan Papelbon who was garnered to fill the void left by free agent Brad Lidge and to provide some stability at the back end of the Phillies bullpen.
Papelbon has done exactly that.
Entering Saturday evening, the 31-year-old closer is perfect in save situations this season for Philadelphia and is currently tied with Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel for the league-lead with 12 saves.
The veteran reliever has surrendered runs in just two of his 17 appearances this season (neither were save situations) and has recorded eight perfect innings among the 16.1 innings tossed this season.
The Phillies haven't had a true shutdown closer at the back of their pen since Lidge in 2008. Of course, that was the year Lidge went a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities guiding the Phils to their first World Series title in 28 years.
We're not asking Papelbon to be that kind of perfect but it's comforting to know he has the ability to do so. Crunch games at the close of the regular season are like playoff games, and good bullpens win playoff games. If it comes down to three outs needed to seal a Phillies victory in a big game, I like their chances.
No team in baseball has played in more big games over the last handful of years than the Philadelphia Phillies. In rattling off five straight trips to the playoffs, the Phillies have suited up in 46 postseason games over the last five years.
As a team, Philadelphia is 27-19 during that stretch and has rattled off five series victories in nine attempts. What's most important for this year's group, though, is that many of the players that comprise the current roster have been a big part of this team's postseason success in recent years.
Hamels, Howard, Ruiz, Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino were all part of Philadelphia's first foray into the MLB postseason back in 2007 when the Phils were promptly swept in three games by the Colorado Rockies. That same group has gone on to capture four more NL East crowns while advancing to the World Series twice and winning it once.
This team hasn't panicked after a mediocre start and at the time of writing this has won six straight games to climb to within 3.5 games of division-leading Atlanta. Much of that resolve can be attributed to manager Charlie Manuel, who for years has known just what buttons to push and when.
The window may be closing on this current group of Phillies and their chance to capture another World Series crown, but I don't think it's closed just yet.