The Philadelphia Phillies began 2010 with lofty goals. Their first objective was to secure a fourth consecutive NL Eastern Division crown.
Now that the Philadelphia Phillies have finished interleague play and turned their attention back to the National League, they find themselves behind both the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets in the NL East.
They currently sit 2.5 games behind the Braves, who turned a disappointing April into a promising season, and a game behind the Mets.
After a strong start and enviable lead in May, the Phillies fell upon hard times while their two rivals caught fire. The result has been a slide from a comfortable lead to a middle-of-the-pack chase position.
Although this is not where they hoped to be as June heads to a close, the Phillies surely are within striking distance.
Since it appears that the Braves and Mets will not fade, securing another division title will most likely require the Phillies to improve in several areas.
In other words, nobody is going to hand them the division; they will need to take it.
In order to make that happen, many, if not all, of the following 10 things need to happen over the balance of the year.
Ruben Amaro's off season, free agent acquisition of Danys Baez was supposed to provide a key contributor in the bullpen and minimize the loss of Chan Ho Park. To put it nicely, it hasn't worked out.
Despite considerable juice on his fastball, Baez has displayed the type of poor command that keeps big leaguers on the farm. Considering the team's large investment in him, it is doubtful that Baez is going anywhere though.
Accordingly, the best scenario for the Phillies is to have Baez's pitching adventures pushed to a long relief role. If his work primarily comes during blowouts, perhaps he can right himself with minimal risk to the club.
In order for Baez to be pushed into a Clay Condrey-type role, a healthy and effective Ryan Madson needs to return.
The former aspiring placekicker has begun a minor league rehab assignment and could conceivably return to the big club within a week or two. Considering his long layoff, it is unclear how long it will take him to regain his strength and command.
Madson primarily relies on a mid-to-high 90's heater and his excellent change-up. The former requires strength and fitness, while the latter requires precision, so it may take some time to find his groove.
An effective Madson over the season's second half and down the stretch will be very important to the Phillies' chances. The combination of Jose Contreras, JC Romero, and Madson would form a solid set-up crew that was a differentiating strength in 2008.
The mid-May to mid-June swoon highlighted the importance of Jimmy Rollins to the team's success. The Phillies with Rollins (15-5) and without him (26-29) seem to provide the greatest testimony. Doing the math– that's a 277-point differential in winning percentage.
J-Roll is the igniter at the top of the line-up. He is the anchor of the defense. And, he's the vital organ that injects energy and swagger throughout the ballclub.
If the Phillies hope to bring home another division title, Rollins will have to be on the field and provide that important spark to his teammates.
Left field historically is a position that provides some offensive pop. Thus far this season, it has provided more of a fizzle for the Phillies.
Raul Ibanez continues to struggle to regain his stroke after a blistering start to his Phillies career. A July groin injury severely depressed his production over the balance of 2009.
Despite offseason surgery to repair the injury, we are now almost three months into the 2010 season and Ibanez is still slumping. A big night left him still hitting just .244 with 6 HR and 36 RBI, which projects to 13 HR and 78 RBI respectively over a full year.
Manager Charlie Manuel does not really have a viable alternative, since backup Ben Francisco has struggled just the same until the past few days. His surge this week raised his average to .257, but he still sports a paltry .338 slugging percentage.
Perhaps both are on an upswing. Still, as a team, the Phillies rank towards the bottom in offensive production in many categories at this position.
Either Ibanez and/or Francisco must generate more offensive output from a position typically reserved for sluggers. If not, and the team continues to lag behind in the standings, would the Phillies consider taking a shot on elevating Dominic Brown if he performs well in Triple-A?
The difference between a World Series Championship in 2008 and a runner-up finish in 2009 arguably came down to one player. Brad Lidge went from "Lights Out" with a perfect 48 closing conversions to becoming a white knuckle adventure.
With the Braves having more talent and the Mets having better health this season, the Phillies must have consistency when they call on Lidge to close out games in order to overtake them.
Both of those clubs have reliable closers who take care of business, and the Phillies can ill-afford to allow wins to get away in the final frame. And make no mistake, the impact of blown saves extends beyond the win-loss columns to reach into the psyches of the entire ball club.
Lidge has exhibited better command and greater confidence than a year ago, but two blown conversions and six runs in his last four innings of work triggers some unrest. Last night's three-run rally with two outs and no one on base in the ninth was reminiscent of last year.
Fortunately, the offense bailed him out with their own three spot in the 10th inning to make him a winner and diminish the psychological hit a team feels when victory is grabbed from the jaws of defeat.
It would be unrealistic to expect anything approaching perfection over the balance of the season, especially considering Lidge's struggles since his 2008 season-ending victory leap. However, it seems a must that the Phillies' closer exhibits high reliability and instills confidence throughout the clubhouse.
Regrettably, last night was another step in the opposite direction.
Similar to last season, Joe Blanton got off to a dismal start. This year, an injury slowed Blanton down, but the results have been very similar.
A key element to the Phillies' strong finish a year ago was that Blanton turned things around to become a highly dependable starter over the last three months. The team needs the same from him this year.
With Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels pitching well at the top of the rotation, yet only registering a 15-12 record between them thus far, the Phillies need the other three starters to consistently keep them in games.
Part of the reason for this anomaly is because Hamels and Halladay match up against other team's top hurlers, so it stands to reason that strong pitching from the Phillies' other starters provides a greater opportunity to register a "W."
After eight starts in 2009, Blanton was 2-3 with a lofty 7.11 ERA. Making his best case for the "history repeats itself" theory, Big Joe was 1-5 with a 7.28 ERA after eight starts this season.
The team hopes that his recent three solid performances are the beginning of a similar trend line to a year ago. After the poor 2009 start, Blanton went 10-5 with a 3.16 ERA over the balance of the season, a performance that the Phillies would happily embrace in 2010.
After initially pitching out of the bullpen, J.A. Happ replaced an ineffective Park and became the team's second best starter over the balance of the 2009 regular season. Had the team not acquired Cliff Lee at the trade deadline, Happ would have been considered their most successful starter.
Had Happ not had such a fine rookie campaign, and later had the Phillies not acquired Lee and Pedro Martinez, it is highly doubtful that they would have even made the postseason.
The young lefty was clearly a key component to last season's success as he gave the team a strong chance to win virtually every time he took the mound.
Happ just completed his fifth rehab start and is clearly not pitching at the same level that earned him Sporting News Rookie of the Year honors. He is starting to regain his command, but his velocity is 5-8 mph lower than normal.
A return to health and form would provide a huge boost to the 2010 club. Right now, that appears to be an iffy proposition, so it could be some time before the form reappears despite the indication that he is feeling better.
Should that not materialize, current fill-in Kyle Kendrick needs to become more consistent. He has turned in some fine performances, but also some very poor outings as well.
Monday night's loss left Kendrick with a 4-3 mark and 4.88 ERA. If the team hopes to win another division title, they will need better from Happ and/or Kendrick.
The recent struggles of Chase Utley illustrated how important his offense is to the Phillies' success.
Because of his remarkable consistency as a fixture in the three hole over the previous five years, his production tends to be taken a little bit for granted. The brownout that dropped his name from the NL leaderboards to journeyman territory noticeably undermined the offense.
The team's fortunes turned around about the same time Utley emerged from his extended slump.
Now that a thumb injury has landed Utley on the 15-day disabled list, this issue has substantially grown. Considering that the extent of the ailment is still unknown, this could prove to be a huge blow to the Phillies' hopes.
This is not to suggest that the team would pack it in if Utley is lost for an extended period of time, but most everything else would have to go right to compensate.
Chase being Chase is clearly part of the Phillies' secret sauce.
This one is largely out of the Phillies' control, but needless to say it would inflict a painful blow. For fans, and perhaps some players, who never bought into the rationale for trading away last season's postseason hero, a Cliff Lee trade to one of the Phils' chief rivals would add insult to injury.
Considering that the Seattle Mariners are mired in dead last with little hope to dig its way to the top, and Lee is almost surely going to test the free agent waters at season's end, it is an overwhelmingly safe bet that he will be moved before the trade deadline.
Heading into the season, Atlanta's starting rotation was considered a key strength. An injury to Jair Jurrjens and a 1-9 start by Kenshin Kawakami has put a little chink in that armor, so renting an ace for the pennant run might not be out of the question.
The more likely destination would be the Big Apple. Over the past week, speculation about the Mets' interest in Lee has heated up. GM Omar Minaya has a history of rolling the dice by trading prospects for veterans and obtaining Lee would probably make them the instant favorite amongst baseball pundits.
Should Lee land with another elite team such as the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox, etc., it would also make the Phillies' quest for another World Series title much more challenging. But first things first, so near term concerns would revolve around their own division rivals.
There seems little hope that the Phillies would craft a pre-emptive strike and re-acquire the pitcher they dumped for a trio of long-range prospects. The team's dearth of minor league talent, bloated payroll, and clumsy handling of the Lee deal last winter make it unlikely, so they can only hope that a team like the Rangers wins the sweepstakes.
One understandable and natural byproduct of a successful sports team such as the current era Phillies is to get lulled into a false sense of security.
Simply put, because the Phils have been able to finish each of the last few seasons with a rush that captured them the division crown, players can come to expect that the same will happen again.
At one level, this can instill a sense of calm and over-arching self-assuredness that will get the team through rough spots and high pressure situations.
But it can also cross a fine line into a lack of urgency, or even complacency. It can be very dangerous to believe that everything will fall into place once again and all work out in the end.
In 2007, a strong closing finish by the Phillies, along with a Mets collapse, turned a 7.5 game deficit into a division title in 17 games. Expecting a similar occurrence moves toward the probability of catching lightning in a bottle twice.
The following year, although to a lesser magnitude, the Phils once again surged past the Mets in September. Last season, a strong stretch run provided a comfortable lead that proved enough to hold off the late-surging Marlins and Braves.
An improved Braves team and healthy Mets club seem to have raised the bar for 2010, especially since easy wins against the Nationals will not be so readily available to boost the Phillies' cause.
Confidence and a bit of swagger is good, but adding in a sense of urgency to grab the pole position and keep rivals chasing would be even better.
Overall, the Philadelphia Phillies' 2010 season has not gone according to plan thus far and will not for the foreseeable future. Like the Mets a year ago, the injury bug has hit the team hard.
With key players such as Utley, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz, Madson, Happ, and Chad Durbin currently residing on the disabled list, it is unknown when the team might be close to full strength.
It will likely require 95 wins or more to capture the NL East in 2010. Consequently, unless other compensating factors emerge such as a trade or extraordinary performances by others, the Phillies may need a perfect score on all 10 of these items to overtake the Mets and Braves.
Tougher competition and a seemingly unending stream of obstacles might make this season the Phillies' greatest challenge in recent years. And with few bargaining chips and little payroll wiggle room, the organization is likely going to need to find the formula for success from within.
Could one ingredient be in the Lehigh Valley?
Stay tuned, because it should be an adventurous ride ahead.
Gary Suess is the founder of the Philadelphia Sports blog I'm Just Saying, Philly