Philadelphia, PA – After yet another disappointing loss for the Philadelphia Phillies, perhaps now is not the time to pontificate why they could be headed back to the postseason for the sixth straight year.
But if last year taught us anything, it is that it is never over until it is over and with 91 games left to be played, this season is far from over.
The St. Louis Cardinals were 10 1/2 games behind a playoff spot back on Aug. 25 and wound up winning a World Series title. Even the Tampa Bay Rays overcame a nine-game deficit in early September to reach the playoffs.
So, even though they sit in last place in the National League East, have looked absolutely lost for most of the season at the plate, and have used Hector Luna as their cleanup hitter at times this season, it is way to premature to throw dirt on the Phillies' 2012 casket.
And here's why:
1) THEY PLAY IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
The Washington Nationals have been the best team in the division all season, but they are going to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg at some point. Most think he has a 170-inning limit and general manager Mike Rizzo has repeatedly stated he will not budge on that regardless of where they are in the standings. Not to mention, they are a young team and that could take a toll in September.
The Mets are, well, the Mets. Granted, it's amazing that they have done as well as they have considering the lineup they put out there everyday and the fact that there bullpen ERA is almost a full run higher than any other team in the league. If Terry Collins isn't a unanimous choice for NL Manager of the Year then something is wrong.
Atlanta has been way too streaky. They are up, they are down. I'm not exactly sure who this team is. Either way, it's going to be a heck of a lot harder for the Braves from here on out without the services of right-hander Brandon Beachy, who was lost for the season earlier in the week after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Now, the Marlins are interesting. They are probably the most talented team in the division from top-to-bottom, but haven't played like it. In fact they have had a hard time getting out of their own way for a majority of the season and heading into action this weekend have lost 13 of 15.
So even at nine games back, the division is still there for the taking for the Phillies.
2) CLIFF LEE STILL DOES NOT HAVE A WIN
The Phillies have won just three of Cliff Lee's 11 starts this season. Three. And that's triple the number that the former Cy Young Award winner has won this season.
That's right, Lee is 0-3 despite allowing two runs or less in five of his 11 outings. He couldn't even find the win column when he pitched 10 scoreless innings back on April 18 in San Francisco.
Aside from a few hiccups lately, Lee has pitched well. I even joked a few weeks back that he had put himself in position to become the National League's first winless All-Star Game starter. His ERA sits at 3.48, but that number is bit inflated since giving up nine runs over 13 innings his last two times out.
I am a strong believer in things always finding a way to even themselves out. Is anyone going to be surprised if the Phillies win eight of his next 11 starts? Probably not.
As good as Lee has been for the Phils, you have to think his best is still yet to come.
3) EXTRA PLAYOFF SPOT
Even if you believe that here on June 22 that the nine-game deficit in the division is too much for the Phillies to overcome, they do have the wild card to fall back on.
And this year they have the benefit of two such spots.
As we sit here the Phillies are 5 1/2 games behind both the Mets and San Francisco Giants for those spots. Now the six games in the loss column aren't the problem, it's the five other teams in front of them to get to that spot.
It's probably going to take 90 wins to get into the playoffs in the National League, meaning the Phils would have to go 57-34 from here on out to get to that number.
The bottom line is when the Phillies are healthy they are still one of, if not, the most dangerous team in the National League.
Speaking of which ...
4) MOST IMPORTANTLY SHOW ME A TEAM THAT IS GOING TO ADD THE LIKES OF A CHASE UTLEY, RYAN HOWARD OR ROY HALLADAY AT THE TRADE DEADLINE, LET ALONE ALL THREE
We can all agree the reason the Phillies find themselves in the position they are in is because their offense this season has been, well, offensive.
When Ryan Howard ruptured his Achilles' tendon making the final out in the 2011 NLDS, Phillies fans knew it was going to be awhile before they saw him again. And despite overly optimistic projections early on, that has certainly been the case.
What the Philly faithful and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. didn't see coming, though, was that second baseman Chase Utley would once again miss the start of the season with what has become a chronic knee problem.
Then, of course, it didn't help that Roy Halladay suffered a lat strain in late May. But, given that some people thought Halladay could have had some sort of shoulder injury, most in the Philadelphia organization were probably relieved for the 2-to-3 month diagnosis on the lat.
But, all three could be back. And back soon, especially in the case of Utley.
Utley has begun playing rehab games down in Florida and could join the team at some point near or right after the All-Star break. Now what is Utley? Well that still remains to be seen. He only managed 44 RBI in 103 games last season and his average has dropped each of the last four years, bottoming out last season at .259.
Some think he will never be the player he once was, but I know this, whatever he is he's an upgrade over Michael Martinez, Hector Luna, Mike Fontenot or anyone else the Phillies throw out there.
Perhaps not as far along as Utley, the hope still is that Howard can come back at some point. And as long as he does, he will have a far greater impact than Utley. We are talking about the top run producer of the last five years. Just his presence in the middle of the lineup alone changes how teams will approach the Phillies.
At the very least, though, the return of Utley and Howard lengthens the lineup. Utley is coming, Howard still has a ways to go, but the belief is that he will be back at some point.
One thing we do know for sure is that Halladay is going to be back.
When firing on all cylinders, there is not a better pitcher in the game than Halladay. He's nowhere near resembled that this season, though. In fact at the time of his injury, he had lost five of his last six decisions and was pitching to an ERA of 3.98.
Now he was dogged by velocity issues in spring and in the early going. Was it the injury or is he losing it? Let's chalk it up to him not being fully honest with the Phillies' medical staff.
If Roy Halladay is your biggest concern down the stretch, you are probably going to be OK.
Look, it's not going to be easy, but there is a lot of baseball to be played. And after what happened last season it's way too early to count anyone out, let alone the Philadelphia Phillies.
What's that saying? The Major League Baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.