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Losing Battles. Winning Wars?

This might not be saying much, but it’s probable the last week of play has been the least pleasant of the season for the Phillies in 2011. In addition to irritating rain delays and the even more annoying refusal on the part of the Braves to lose a friggin’ game, the Phils themselves have gone down to defeat three times in their last six games—and all in painful, come-from-ahead ninth-inning fashion. The streamlined baseball death machine that is the 2011 Phillies has spouted little plumes of smoke and leaked some oil.

Yet, notwithstanding that it just sucks to lose any game you’d seemingly all but won, I’m actually not sure that the positive elements of the last week don’t significantly outweigh the downside.

Let’s start with the weekend’s pitching performances. Friday night’s rainstorm meant that the much-maligned Kyle Kendrick got last-minute bumped ahead 24 hours to protect Roy Oswalt’s arm; for Kendrick, the experience was probably similar to being told to taste the King’s food because something reeks of bitter almonds. But he stepped up again, throwing six strong innings to register his fourth quality start in his last five. (In the other, he went 5.2 innings and allowed three runs). Overall, in his last five games (three starts), Kendrick has held opponents to a collective .213/.263/.348 line… and, stunningly given the entirety of his previous career, he’s struck out 18 batters in his last 24.1 innings (after fanning just 28 in his first 73 frames this season).  As has often been true in his career, he’s pitching well ahead of his peripherals… but the underlying performance too is better, as indicated by his 4.42 FIP. Whether serving as a semi-reliable bullpen option or a true "sixth starter" employed to minimize the wear on the better arms, a high-performing Kendrick is a real asset for the Phillies… particularly if they could unload him for something more useful this winter.

A much bigger deal from the weekend, though, was what Oswalt did when he finally got to pitch Saturday. This was the guy the club traded for in 2010: low/mid-90s fastball with superior movement and a selection of devilish offspeed pitches he could locate pretty much at will. The Nationals aren’t an easy offense to shut down: five of the guys in the lineup facing Oswalt that night have double-digit homers, and Ryan Zimmerman—the only Washington player who had a particularly strong game—has nine. He held them off the board for eight innings, firing nine strikeouts. With the arguable exception of the Diamondbacks, the National League clubs the Phils are mostly likely to see in the playoffs can run pretty good pitchers out there early in a series to oppose Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and maybe even Cole Hamels: the GiantsTim Lincecum and Matt Cain, the BrewersZack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and Yovanni Gallardo, Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson of the Braves. No team, though, has a fourth starter who matches up well with Oswalt. In a tough series, that could be a decisive advantage.

Roy Halladay’s performance Sunday was fairly standard stuff for a non-masterpiece from the Doc: he struggled a bit early, settled down, got a lead, and in the normal course of things he probably would have wound up going seven or eight and left the team in position to win. Again, though, the rain foiled those plans, and Charlie Manuel decided this presented a good opportunity to see what newly recalled Michael Schwimer could do. A longtime favorite of the Phillies’ online community for his accessibility to fans and the cerebral approach he takes toward his craft, Schwimer saw his debut get off to a rough start as Danny Espinosa welcomed him to the majors with a solo homer that tied the game at 3. All he did after that was retire the next eight Washington hitters in a row, striking out four including Ian Desmond, Rick Ankiel and Zimmerman consecutively in the seventh. Schwimer was one more Antonio Bastardo strike from earning the win Sunday; more importantly, he might have taken a first big step toward pitching himself into playoff roster consideration.

All this good stuff doesn’t ease the visceral sting of the losses themselves: Halladay’s bad pitch in the ninth to Lyle Overbay last Tuesday, Ryan Madson’s inability to finish off Nats hitters Friday night, Bastardo’s one mistake in the ninth and Brad Lidge’s many in the tenth to finish the Washington series. But even there, Manuel can take lessons if he heeds them: Doc probably shouldn’t have been out there to start the ninth against Arizona, and unless things go unexpectedly awry, Madson shouldn’t pitch three straight days again until October, if need be then.

It's time to worry when a team is losing games owing to structural weaknesses or severe personnel deficiencies that talented opponents can exploit: a badly unbalanced lineup, starters who can't go more than five or six innings, having Jose Mesa as your closer. These aren't problems for the 2011 Phillies, a great team that's absorbed some recent painful but fluky losses. The bigger deal might be what they're finding out, win or lose--about John Mayberry Jr.'s  progress, Oswalt's health, Schwimer's talent and resilience, and Kendrick's versatility. As the regular season hopefully winds down to a pleasantly meaningless final few weeks, these are probably the things to watch.