PITCHING AND DEFENSE has been the message that they've preached, and as Freddy Galvis fired a strike to first base from his knees for the first out of the ninth inning, you could almost sense Ryne Sandberg and Ruben Amaro Jr. nodding contentedly.
Both men are convinced that this Phillies team can win enough games to keep things interesting, and if they are proved correct, it will be performances like yesterday's that do it. A.J. Burnett turned in his most dominant outing of the season, striking out eight without issuing a walk in eight scoreless innings of a 2-0 win over the Diamondbacks. Sandberg continued to display a keen feel for his team, inserting Galvis at third base as a defensive replacement and then watching the slick-fielding utility man rob Paul Goldschmidt of a hit that would have forced Jonathan Papelbon to record three outs with the tying run at the plate.
This is the recipe for success: the starters pitching deep into games, the defenders making all of the routine plays and a fair share of difficult ones, the manager maximizing the talent at his disposal. Through 25 games, the Phillies have seen enough of that combination for a 13-12 record. That's a .520 winning percentage, or the equivalent of 84 wins over the course of a 162-game season. Last year, 84 wins would have meant finishing six games out of the second wild card spot in the National League, two games behind the Nationals for second place in the NL East.
Of course, none of that means much of anything with 137 games left to play, primarily because of the wide disparities in strength of schedule. The Mets arrive in town tomorrow with a 14-11 record that is even more surprising when you look at the sum of their parts: two regulars with an OPS+ above league average (the Phillies have four), one starter with an ERA+ above league average (the Phillies: four), a bullpen whose 4.14 ERA ranks ahead of only the Reds and the Phillies.
And the way Baseball-Reference.com figures it, New York has played one of the toughest schedules in the National League thus far, right up there with the Nationals and Braves. The Phillies rank 10th in the NL, according to the formula the website uses. They are 7-2 against teams with losing records, and 6-10 against teams with winning records. The Mets are 6-7 and 8-4 in those two departments, the Braves, 12-6 and 5-1. At the end of the year, fates tend to be decided by performances against first-division teams.
So let's focus a little more on process than results. There have been plenty of encouraging signs with regard to some one-time potential problem areas. Burnett appears to have solved the command issues that plagued his fastball during his first three starts. Since a 6-day layoff in mid-April, during which he was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia that was causing some groin discomfort, the veteran righthander has walked only three batters in 21 2/3 innings. During that stretch, he has 18 strikeouts and two runs allowed. Yesterday, he relied heavily on his fastball, and threw 70 percent of them for strikes.
Meanwhile, Papelbon continues to look much sharper than he did during most of spring training and the first week of the regular season. The velocity on his fastball sat between 92 and 93 miles per hour yesterday, showing a lot more life than in his first couple outings of the season. He has not allowed a run since that epic meltdown in Arlington, Texas, on April 2, a scoreless stretch of 10 innings, during which he has seven strikeouts, two walks, and five hits. (He still isn't striking batters out the way he did in his prime, but he can be effective with a rate of seven or eight per nine innings).
There are still questions about the Phillies' ability to produce offensively. Since that 14-10 explosion on Opening Day, they are averaging under four runs per game. Heading into yesterday, they were hitting .253/.313/.367 in their previous 23 games. But the one thing nobody can discount is the strength at the top of their rotation, particularly if Burnett continues to show the command he did against the Diamondbacks. Good defense, seven innings of dominant starting pitching, and timely hitting: That's the way it is going to have to work. And, yesterday, it did.