The Philadelphia Phillies used to make the entire NL East look pathetic. Phillies fans like myself enjoyed how they often had the division all but locked up by September, since no other rival was even close to them. The NL East was among the lopsided divisions in baseball when it was Philadelphia and no one else - but now it has become the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and no one else.
Back in the first half of the year, the downfall of the Phillies seemed to bring about a new competitive era in the NL East. The Nationals, Braves, New York Mets and Miami Marlins all looked capable at some point of taking Philadelphia's throne. But instead of the division becoming balanced and crowded again, it is once again baseball's most unbalanced race as the Nationals and Braves keep running away.
The Phillies helped that along by not recovering from their slow start. As it turned out, getting Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay back was not the cure to their early season problems after all. Now for the first time in years, the Phillies are in a dogfight in the NL East - to avoid going from first to last.
Their competitors in the race to avoid the cellar are the almost equally disappointing Marlins and Mets. Miami was expected to fight for first place with Philadelphia, yet its big name acquisitions and its new ballpark couldn't provide a shortcut to victory. Instead, the Marlins are back to what they've always been, as an underachieving team with barely any fans.
In truth, New York is more disappointing because it was actually winning for some time, and had R.A. Dickey and a perfect game from Jonan Santana to brag about. But these days, even Dickey is vulnerable and Santana has been knocked around ever since his perfect game - with the Nationals getting to him on Aug. 17.
With the Mets, Marlins and Phillies all playing out the string, the Nationals and Braves are practically breezing to the postseason. Although Washington is only four games ahead of Atlanta for first place, the third place Mets are now 18 games back and are slipping closer to last place. At the least, the Nationals and Braves should pad their win totals by beating up their divisional rivals for the next several weeks.
This used to be what the Phillies would do, as they slaughtered divisional opponents that were in no way in their league. But for the first time in years, it appeared the NL East would be different this season and would actually be up for grabs - at least until the All-Star break ended.
The only thing that's different from the last few years is the identity of the team, or teams, that are leaving everyone else in the dust - and that the Phillies are on the overmatched side of the tracks this time. Otherwise, the NL East is merely a one/two team division by a rather wide margin, just like it has always been.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident who has followed the Phillies since he was eight years old.
Other stories from this contributor