Unlike previous years, there wasn’t much suspense in the NL East race in 2009.
After clinching a third straight division title, the Phillies send the struggling Lee to the mound, hoping he can snap out of his slump in the finale of a four-game series with the Houston Astros on Thursday night.
The defending World Series champions became the latest team to secure a spot in the postseason, beating Houston 10-3 on Wednesday. It will be Philadelphia’s third consecutive trip to the playoffs - its longest streak since 1976-78.
“I’ll celebrate when we get to the big one,” said manager Charlie Manuel, who stayed in his office while players doused each other with champagne and beer.
Manuel’s team moved into first place for good on May 30 and has spent 136 days atop the standings, taking advantage of a disappointing season by New York, which battled the Phillies (92-66) for the division title the previous two years.
With the pressure off, Philadelphia is hoping it can get Lee (7-3, 3.28 ERA) ready for the playoffs. He’s lost three of his last five decisions.
Lee went 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in his first five starts after being traded to Philadelphia, pitching two complete games while not giving up a home run. In the six outings since, he has gone 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA, yielding six homers. He was tagged for seven runs in six innings of an 8-4 loss to Milwaukee last Friday, surrendering two home runs.
“His first (few) games here were really, really good,” Manuel told the Phillies’ official Web site. “That was because he had command to both sides of the plate. He’s had some trouble doing that.
“Anytime somebody (struggles) it’s a concern. If you have a not-so-good outing or whatever, that doesn’t concern me. If you go three or four, yeah, I’d like to see him pitch like he did the first three or four times. But unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”
The left-hander made his first career start against the Astros (73-85) on Sept. 4, giving up six runs and nine hits in three innings of a 7-0 loss.
Lee will be looking for the kind of offensive support the Phillies have provided in the last two games. After losing the opener 8-2, Philadelphia has scored 17 runs in the last two victories against Houston. Raul Ibanez(notes) led the Phillies with a home run and three RBIs on Wednesday.
Paulino hasn’t recorded a win since June 27, going 0-7 with a 7.71 ERA over seven starts and three relief appearances since. He gave up eight runs in five innings of a 10-4 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday.
Philadelphia learned Wednesday that it will be without pitcher Jamie Moyer(notes) for the remainder of the season. He will have season-ending surgery after tearing muscles in his groin and lower abdomen.