Since winning 102 regular season games in 2011, the Phillies have been a bit snakebitten.
They lost their NLDS series against the Cardinals that year after blowing a 2-1 series lead. Roy Halladay's career essentially ended in that fateful Game 5, 1-0 loss, out-dueled by Chris Carpenter, and he was never the same again. Ryan Howard's Achilles exploded, rendering him virtually useless for about two years.
Chase Utley dealt with chronic knee problems in 2011 and 2012. Jimmy Rollins regressed. Meanwhile, division rivals, like the Nationals and Braves, re-emerged as National League powers.
Couple that bad luck with some unfortunate decisions by the front office and it's easy to see why the Phils have been wandering the desert after five straight years of good times.
But after Sunday's thrilling 1-0 win over the Nats at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies now sit at 15-14, just 1 1/2 games back in an NL East that has every team sitting over .500, and some of that can be attributed some very good, early-season luck.
First, the Phils were fortunate enough to play a Washington squad that was without two of its three best hitters, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. Since entering the league in 2005, Zimmerman has an OPS of .825 against Phillies pitching, and his 19 home runs are the second most he has hit against any other team (he has 19 against Atlanta and 23 against Miami). Harper has only been killing the Phillies since 2012, but his .819 career OPS against was not exactly missed by Phils' pitchers this weekend.
Second, the Braves had the misfortune of running into two teams this week that were quite obviously stealing all of their signs, getting swept by San Fracisco this weekend after losing three straight to the Marlins earlier this week. That six-game losing streak has brought everyone in the NL East back to the pack and has helped keep the Phillies in the mix.
Third, while their pitching staff has been managing pretty well here in the early going, don't forget about Atlanta losing two of their best pitchers to Tommy John surgery, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, in spring training. Atlanta's rotation has survived in part to the late-spring addition of Ervin Santana. But can Aaron Harang continue to pitch the way he has all season long? Will Alex Wood and David Hale continue to shine? And is there enough offense there in Atlanta?
Finally, the relative health of the Phillies has been a huge key to their early-season success. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Cliff Lee and now Cole Hamels all appear to be fully healthy and playing right at, or slightly above, their career averages. For the first time in years, their starting lineup, rotation and bullpen are fully healthy.
And now that the calendar has flipped to May and a harder-than-expected April schedule is behind them, the Phils have a more favorable schedule sitting in front of them. Starting with tonight's four-game, home-and-home series with the Blue Jays (the first two at home, the last two in Toronto), the Phils will play 16 more home games this month, with just 11 on the road.
Of course, there are some headwinds. The Phils still feature a bullpen that is among the worst in baseball. They could have swept the Nats this weekend were it not for another implosion by the relievers on Friday night. The offense has a tendency to disappear at times. And while the Braves did come back to the pack a bit last week, the Marlins have been surging, taking two of three from the Dodgers this weekend. The Mets, who beat the Phils last week in their ultra-fun, rain-canceled, one-game series, are playing really well too. And for my money, the Nationals are still the best team in this division, when Zimmerman and Harper are playing every day.
Still, the Phils should feel very fortunate to sit just 1 1/2 games out of first place on the morning of May 5. Some things have gone their way early on, enough to keep them "in the game."
We'll see if they can take advantage.