The Philadelphia Phillies picked a bad season to flirt with the .500 mark.
At this time last season they were 11 games over .500, two years ago they were six games over, and three years ago they were 11 games over once again. But more importantly, in all three of those prior seasons their current 28-29 record would have been good for second or third place in the NL East.
But in the 2012 version of the NL East, it has them sitting in the cellar.
This year's NL East is the most-improved, deepest, and quite possibly the best division in baseball, with only the American League's Eastern division giving them a run for their money.
The Nationals have allowed the least runs in baseball by a shockingly large margin. The Marlins are the hottest team in the NL. The Mets are 31-21 despite a negative run-differential––which, along with Johan Santana's improbable eradication of the team's no-hitter curse, is starting to make this feel like a blessed season. And the Braves, the only other team in the division that was supposed to play well this season, have been as steady as ever.
Translation: the Phillies aren't gonna ascend into playoff contention by waiting for their peers to regress to the mean. One, maybe two, of the four teams ahead of them might be off to fluky starts that will fade away through the doldrums of summer. But some of them will stick.
If the Phillies want to return to the playoffs this season, they're gonna have to get markedly better. Here are the five players who are most essential to a Philly U-turn in 2012.
These two are lumped together, because the Phillies need the same thing from both of them: a return to form.
Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels could give a Little League team a chance of winning on any given night in the MLB. The pitching depth has given the organization a blessed opportunity to ease their sluggers back to health, while the staff keeps them afloat.
And it's worked. They sit only 3.5 games out of first despite the fact that their two best hitters haven't taken a single cut all year––and won't be taking one any time soon.
But because they've been granted with generous timetables for recovery, when both players return to the lineup later this season, they are both going to be expected to produce as if they never left.
No nagging injuries. No mysterious power-evaporation. Utley and Howard's return—whenever it may be—needs to be the offensive catalyst that will propel this team over the top. Because if they aren't 100 percent in the middle of the Phillies' order, the pitching staffs of the Nationals and Braves could eat them alive down the stretch.
What an addition he's been so far. The embattled closer was unceremoniously ousted from Boston after 2011's late-season collapse, with the club searching desperately for a proper scapegoat.
But one man's trash has been another man's treasure in Philadelphia this season, as Papelbon has posted a 2.31 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP en route to 15 saves in as many chances.
But there's something oddly precarious about the Phillies' closer position. There are many like it in the world of sports: kicker at Florida State, quarterback of the Jets, or, as Philly fans are more familiar with, goalie of the Flyers. It's a position where, even when the problem surely appears to have been resolved, it finds a way to crop up again.
Brad Lidge went 41-for-41 as the Phillies' closer in 2008 before blowing 26 percent of his saves in 2009. Even when he's going as strong as Papelbon is right now, every Phillies closer is always on the precipice of collapse.
And as the Phillies try to stay afloat until Howard and Utley rejoin the team, it's of paramount importance that they don't let games they deserve to win slip away. Papelbon needs to buck the trend and remain a late-inning rock if the Phillies want to claw their way back to the top of the standings.
Sometimes an aging athlete's fall from grace is quick and painless. It's one excruciatingly bad season, followed by an offseason decree that they just don't have the passion anymore, and then they ride into the sunset as SportsCenter counts down their 10 greatest moments.
But sometimes, an aging athlete's fall from grace is slow and painful. It's less a doctor administering a lethal injection, and more Zeus chaining you to a rock and having a vulture peck at your liver for the rest of eternity.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, the latter appears to be happening to Jimmy Rollins. And what's worse, it appears that this season may the process' final act.
2011 saw the former MVP's stats make a slight jump after gradually declining for three years, which provided him with a glimmer of hope for the future. But 2012 has seen him come crashing back down in a big way. In his worst season as a professional, Rollins is hitting .242 with a feeble .332 slugging-percentage. The list of eligible hitters slugging worse than him is, well, not very long.
And yet, perhaps as a career-achievement award, J-Roll continues to bat leadoff for the Phillies, and appears poised to do so for the foreseeable future. The Phillies are doubling down on one of their franchise's all-time greats, hoping he can get it going in the second half of the season.
If he does, they'll look like geniuses. If he doesn't, the playoffs might be an unattainable dream.
As I detailed in an previous article, Carlos Ruiz hasn't just been one of the MLB's most pleasant surprises in 2012; he's been one of the league's best hitters.
Now posting a .358/.416/.600 line with eight homers and 32 RBI, calling this a career-season for Ruiz would be an understatement apropos to calling Breaking Bad a pretty good television program.
This isn't a career season; it's a career renaissance.
But it has to continue. Ruiz won't continue to hit .358, and he can't continue to slug .600, but his production for the rest of the season has to at least be a reasonable facsimile of those numbers.
His middle-of-the-order burden will lessen when Howard and Utley return, but he's responsible for (1) continuing to provide runs until then and (2) not regressing back to last season's .383 slugging-percentage once they do.
Utley in particular is a walk-machine, who has posted numerous seasons with .400-plus OBP. If he's getting on base, Ruiz needs to continue finding gaps in the outfield, like he has been with Utley out of the lineup.