The Philadelphia Phillies obstacle course of a season currently finds them one game up in the National League Eastern Division. The club's 2010 campaign has been akin to a season of The Amazing Race in terms of duration, complexity, and challenge.
An ongoing spate of injuries has kept the National League's best team on paper at less than full strength all season long. Key players revolved on the disabled list and often when back on the field, found themselves still compromised by inactivity and less than full physical function.
The team's fortunes had taken such a nose dive that many were debating whether the Phillies should be "buyers" or "sellers" in the annual July swap meet. Some argued that it was time to concede to the injuries and team's diminished record, write the season off, and look towards next season.
To the Phillies players', coaches', and entire organization's credit— that did not happen. Everyone maintained a sense of calm, found a way to stay afloat, and even threw in a bold trade to acquire another marquee pitcher.
The payoff has been a slow, steady climb back to the top spot in the NL East after spending almost three months looking up at the Atlanta Braves. But just as the team was making the swap in standings, a few more warning flares appeared.
First, Brad Lidge's balky elbow caused the team to shut him down for a few days. Although he is just months removed from surgery to clean it up, both Lidge and the team remain optimistic that it is only a minor ailment that will not derail the Phillies closer.
Lidge has been a key cog in the team's resurgence and is being counted on as an important element for the team's success. Since an ugly blown save against the Washington Nationals in late August, Lidge has done his best work since the 2008 World Series run.
Next, Gold Glove shortstop and team heartbeat Jimmy Rollins pulled up lame running the bases. Two previous stints on the DL already this season with a calf injury caused manager Charlie Manuel to immediately sit him down and is now listed as day-to-day.
The injury was indicated to be a hamstring strain. Both player and team remain optimistic that a short rest will nip the problem in the bud.
Other players such as Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco, and Chase Utley may not be 100 percent over the balance of the year, but that is the reality of the marathon that is Major League Baseball.
Continuing brushes with the injury bug highlight that a successful conclusion to the season is not all within the team's control. And, surely the other team's fighting for a postseason berth are not going to fade away easily.
The Braves lead baseball in comeback and walk-off wins.
The San Francisco Giants have the pitching and a bolstered offense to maintain their charge.
After a recent tailspin, the San Diego Padres are showing signs of a rebound. Strong pitching had produced the best record in the NL before their 10-game losing streak, and surely is capable of producing many wins down the stretch.
The Colorado Rockies have launched their annual September surge. They are playing with the same strong sense of confidence that has propelled them past other teams in recent years when the games became more urgent.
Despite the keen competition, the Phillies are well positioned and poised to make another run to glory.
The Phillies offense has started to heat up as the original starting cast now populates the lineup and returning players continue to find their groove. Hitting can be contagious and Howard appears to have his normal September offensive bug.
With an effective Lidge, a rested and sharp Ryan Madson, and an overall good supporting cast, the bullpen has moved from weakness to strength.
And, importantly, the starting staff is imposing— at least three out of five days.
Joe Blanton brought back memories of Adam Eaton through July, but has been 6-1 with a 3.37 ERA since. The remaining schedule may allow the team to bypass inconsistent fifth starter Kyle Kendrick.
The biggest source of optimism for the pennant stretch and postseason, should they advance, derives from the fact that Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt can out-duel anyone.
Surely the games need to be won on the field, and a one game lead and a pack of hungry teams in pursuit of the playoffs will keep the heat on— but this Phillies team has the elements to win it all.