With today's 8-3 victory over Pittsburgh, the Phils won a series for the first time since their visit to Arizona more than a month ago. They hit the all-star break with a record of 40-47, still in theoretical striking distance for the wild card, reinforced in the area of their greatest first-half weakness with the return of their season-starting #1 and #2 starters Jon Lieber and Brett Myers. Jimmy Rollins is heating up, having turned in a largely overlooked strong month in June (.803 OPS, 15 extra-base hits, 9 steals). The Big Four in the lineup are all still doing about what you'd hope, with Pat Burrell and Chase Utley seemingly coming out of their spirals. Mike Lieberthal should be back soon after the break.
In other words, those seeking grounds for optimism can find them. And that's potentially very, very bad for a team that has failed and needs to be blown up. Starting tomorrow, I'll finally be getting back to the "Hard Choices" series I began last month; the next installment will look at the guys whose Phillies contracts will expire with the end of the 2006 season. Without giving away the whole story, were I Pat Gillick, I'd be looking to move pretty much anyone with value--and those guys with "playoff experience," whose grititude and familiarity with pressure made them so appealing to a team that collectively has none since 1993, should be first on the list.
So what's left to watch? Well, the best news that came out of today's game also strikes me as the best reason to follow the Phils as they play out their 2006 schedule. That's Cole Hamels, who finally earned his second big-league win this afternoon.
There's been some speculation that Hamels should be returned to the minor leagues to refine his breaking stuff in a less pressurized situation. To me, this would be perhaps the worst move the team could make. Hamels' unfathomable minor-league excellence, coupled with the relatively small amount of work he got between injuries--not to mention the instant myth-making around the Phils' most hyped prospect in decades--probably raised expectations beyond what was reasonable.
So one can look at his 5.44 ERA and judge him a disappointment. But Hamels is averaging just under a strikeout per inning (44 in 44.2 IP), and the league is hitting just over .250 against him. If this is failure, success is really going to be fun.
Hamels' biggest problems have been issuing walks (24 in those 44.2 innings) and not being able to put hitters away. As he learns to trust his stuff--and as he's handled by more accomplished game-callers than Sal Fasano and Chris Coste--both those problems should go away. So long as he stays healthy--and the team has handled him with the appropriate caution thus far--I expect big things in the second half.