With the calendar turning to August, it’s now officially the “Dog Days of Summer” for baseball teams. Just as the case has been the previous several years, the Philadelphia Phillies appear to be hitting their stride. Injured players return, the offense gains consistency and the pitching staff provides its brilliance. Last season they trailed the Atlanta Braves by as many as 7 1/2 games before mounting a remarkable comeback, one that took the Braves out of the division race almost as quickly as August turned into September.
This year will be a little different. The Phillies have suffered their fair share of injuries this season. Chase Utley has missed significant time, as has Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras and Shane Victorino. However, it appears all – with the exception of Contreras - will be back and able to help the team defend its division title yet again.
The Atlanta Braves are again the Phillies’ biggest threat, and once again Atlanta is a very formidable opponent. They went out at the deadline and acquired a player who fills multiple needs for them in Michael Bourn. Their pitching staff can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the game, and even after a horrid start to the season Dan Uggla is reminding people why Atlanta gave him $60 million.
However, the NL East is the Phillies division to lose. With a seven game lead (their largest of the season) and the team coming together, it appears nothing can stop them. But that’s a dangerous statement to make. Here’s what needs to happen in order to obtain the team’s goals for 2011...
Despite being the forgotten man this year, Roy Oswalt is still a very formidable pitcher, and a dominant one in the second half if career trends tell us anything. After two rehab starts in which Oswalt looked sharp, it appears he is ready to join the Phillies on their West Coast trip, and start Saturday at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
If Oswalt is even half the pitcher he was for the Phillies down the stretch in 2010, it will be a vast improvement over Kyle Kendrick.
The Phillies can win the division, and maybe even the World Series, without Roy Oswalt. However, he’ll make it a lot easier to do so.
Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo have been absolutely fabulous for the Phillies this season. Each has dominated games, excelled in pressurized situations, and given the Phillies and their fans confidence when they come into games.
However, neither have pitched this deep into a major league season, where the grind and effort is much more difficult than anything they experienced at any other level. With significant portions of the Phillies bullpen on the disabled lists for extended periods of time, manager Charlie Manuel has needed to call on his young arms more than he probably would have liked to.
The extra work each picked up in the earlier parts of the season may come back to haunt the Phillies down the stretch, and it’s possible either or both could suffer fatigue.
With Brad Lidge back and his slider looking sharp, and Kyle Kendrick headed back to the bullpen, it might be the best time to give Stutes and Bastardo rest while they prepare for a long, deep push through October.
For the second straight season Ryan Howard is producing numbers far below his career norm. (Did that conversation/training session with Barry Bonds actually halt his production?) The slugger once assured of belting 45 home runs and driving in 135+ runs is on pace to hit just 32 home runs and drive in 122. Good numbers for some, but not for a player making $125 million to slug home runs. After an 0-5 night in the opener against Colorado, Howard’s batting average has fallen to .250, and his strikeout total is climbing.
Is adding Hunter Pence enough to get Howard to start hitting? Phillies fans hope so, as the team will definitely need his bat down the stretch.
Luckily Howard has shown a tendency to heat up in the final two months of the season. 2010 was an anomaly, as he had severely sprained his ankle and was never the same player when he came back last year.
If the Phillies have any hope of hoisting another championship trophy this fall, they NEED Ryan Howard to start hitting like a champion.
While it’s difficult to make trades and acquire players post-July 31st, it’s not impossible. There are not going to be any Hunter Pence or Roy Oswalt type of trades, but that doesn’t mean something can’t be accomplished.
The Phillies still have needs. They could use a veteran arm in the bullpen. A marquee acquisition is out of the question, but a veteran arm like a Jamey Wright or Jason Isringhausen might not be too difficult to obtain.
The Phillies could also use another hitter off the bench. Ross Gload was once a great pinch-hitter, but his hip injury is killing him and the Phillies. They need to bite the bullet and find a replacement.
Jason Giambi’s name has repeatedly been mentioned, but acquiring him (once he comes of the disabled list) could prove difficult. Having the best record in the major leagues has its pulses and minuses. One of the drawbacks is that now the Phillies must wait out 29 other teams before putting in a successful waiver claim.
With baseball’s best record, a comfortable lead in the division, and the best rotation in baseball, there is no reason for the Phillies to concern themselves with anyone except themselves and who they are playing on a given night.
The Phillies will not lose the division if they continue doing the things they’ve done the past four months; they will only lose the division by getting careless about it, by focusing on anything but the task at hand.
Watching how the Phillies have played and excelled over the past several years, it’s doubtful they will let anything slip through their fingers this year. For the first time in our history, October baseball is a GIVEN in Philadelphia, and I can’t wake to taste the champagne.