It's almost over. The last leg of the hellacious sequence of games that pitted the Phillies against some of the best teams in the game -- the Braves, Marlins, Cardinals, Rockies, Rangers, and Reds – is almost over, with one more hurdle to clear when they host the Cincinnati Reds for a four game set that kicks off on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park.
Through the first 16 games of this stretch, which is likely to be the toughest series of games the Phils will play this season, they are 7-9, despite having a team ERA of 3.04 in that stretch. However, pitching certainly hasn't been the problem; it's the guys on the other side of the ball.
The offense, which has enough of a pedigree to convince most opposing pitchers that they have their worked cut out for then, hasn't been nearly as effective as they could or should be. Over that same span, the Phillies have hit to the tune of .204/.265/.311, with a total of 37 runs scored in 15 games – that's 2.5 runs per game. For the purposes of comparison, the National League is averaging a line of .248/.319/.379 for the month of May, with an average of 3.5 runs per game. It’s a disparity that is not insignificant.
In short, the Phillies have struggled with the bats. Even in this most recent series, where they took two of three from the American League West leading Texas Rangers – they did so while only scoring a total of five runs. That's bound to happen at some point during the season, where games are won thanks to nothing but pitching and opportune hitting, but it's been the norm as of late, as the Phils have scored more than three runs only twice over the last 16 games. It's a miracle that they are still leading the division, quite frankly.
But they say it's darkest just before the dawn, and it appears that, for the Phillies, daybreak is right around the corner.
They activated Chase Utley from the disabled list following Sunday's game, and he'll be in the starting lineup for the series opener with the Reds – the first time he's seen the batter's box at Citizens Bank Park since game six of the 2010 National League Championship Series. While it might be a lot to ask of Chase to immediately reverse the offensive struggles of the club, his presence alone makes the lineup a bit deeper, and perhaps more importantly, means that Wilson Valdez won't be starting every game, which is an improvement in and of itself.
Aside from Utley, the Phillies also have Domonic Brown, heir to the outfield throne, chomping at the bit to make his mark with the team in 2011. After a miserable spring that ended with a broken hand, the team's best hitting prospect has the starting job all but wrapped up. Now, he just needs to keep it.
Provided that Utley can stay healthy, and that Domonic Brown can hit like he is capable of hitting, the lineup is going to be much more dynamic than it has been in recent weeks, when replacement-level players have been getting far too much playing time.
At this point, the Phillies have no place to go but up. It’s an odd thing to say considering that they still sit atop the division, they still boast one of the best rotations in the game, and they still are waiting for some key pieces (Shane Victorino, Jose Contreras, Brad Lidge) to get healthy.
After Thursday, they will have passed through the most difficult stretch of games this season, and if they can come out of the Red series with their heads above the water – a likely possibility given they will be sending Cole Hamels (who owns the Reds with a 1.07 ERA against them in seven career regular season games) to the hill on Monday night, along with Vance Worley on Tuesday, followed by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively – the rest of the season very well could be their oyster.