As featured on Phillies Nation.
In the heat of a pennant race, the Philadelphia Phillies have a comfortable 7.5 game lead in the National League Eastern Division. As they paraded down Broad Street last October, there is much anticipation for a repeat. The summer has been a roller coaster ride for the reigning World Champions.
When summer started, the Phillies were in the midst of a slump. In June, they had a record of 11-15, which included a six game losing streak and being swept multiple times. They were beat up during Interleague play, going 5-12 against the American League. The slump forced manager Charlie Manuel to bench the team's catalyst, Jimmy Rollins. Rollins had been batting .211 and suffered from a career worst 0-for-28 streak at the time.
Rollins returned to the lineup and turned around his struggles (batting .272 with 10 HR after the All Star Break). So did the Phillies. The Phillies went 20-7 in July, which included a 10 game winning streak, and a historical 22-1 pounding against the Cincinnati Reds. Also during the month of July, the Phillies sent five players to the All Star Game: Chase Utley (.304 AVG, .976 OPS) Raul Ibanez (.278, 27 HR), Shane Victorino (.305 AVG), Ryan Howard (37 HR, 111 RBI), and Jayson Werth (29 HR). With a solid offense filled with all star caliber players and a decent pitching staff, the Phillies were cruising along. But, they were still missing a piece to the puzzle: another starting pitcher.
Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, has been very inconsistent this season (7-8, 4.52 ERA). The Phillies did not have the ace they once had. As the July 31 trade deadline approached, it was thought that Roy Halladay, one of the top pitchers in baseball, would be wearing red pinstripes. The price was too expensive, so the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee in addition to Ben Francisco from the Cleveland Indians for a package of second tier prospects (Lou Marson, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, and Carlos Carrasco). The deal proved to be the right move. Lee pitched a complete game in his first start as a Phillie, and continues to mow down hitters.
Since the All Star Break, the Phillies starting rotation turned it around after shaky first half. J.A Happ is a heavy favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, and has been the Phillies most consistent starter (10-3, 2.63 ERA). It's hard to believe that Joe Blanton once had an earned run average over seven this season. He has been an inning eater and has lowered his ERA dramatically thanks to a string of solid outings.
Like Chan Ho Park, Jamie Moyer transitioned from the starting rotation to the bullpen after future Hall of Famer, Pedro Martinez joined the team. Upset about the Phillies decision to demote him because of his struggles, Moyer responded out of the 'pen and has pitched magnificently since the move.
The Phillies still have question marks, especially surrounding the closer, Brad Lidge. After going a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities in 2008 (postseason included), Lidge has the highest ERA and most blown saves of any relief pitcher in baseball. The bullpen has been plagued with injuries (J.C Romero, Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey, etc.), and hasn't been as dominating as they were last season.
As the weather gets hotter, so does Ryan Howard. For whatever reason, Howard takes hitting to a whole new level in August and September. He's already in the midst of another late-season surge. With an ace in Lee and a hot bat in Howard, the Phillies look for another exciting September. The dog days of summer are quickly coming to a close. All that is left is to clinch the division and start another magical October run.