LOS ANGELES – It's all so surreal that on a given Tuesday night in July the Philadelphia Phillies would have Roy Halladay on the mound, all their parts in their predetermined places around him, the batting order presenting stout and reliable in name and reputation, and yet their season sits teetering on irrelevance.
This is exactly who they are, right? Halladay and Chooch, Howard and Utley, Victorino and Rollins.
A team in its prime – granted, reasonably well along in its prime – is gunned down by injuries, and depth, and a talent creep toward Washington, the usual sturdiness in Atlanta, and whatever that is – or was – in New York.
So, on any given night, opposing scouts overrun the media dining room, preparing to pick through what the Phillies may or may not move. At Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Angels, the New York Mets, the New York Yankees and a good handful of others prepped over roast beef and mashed potatoes. They're here for relief help, maybe an outfielder or third baseman, perhaps trailing along after watching Cole Hamels two days before in Colorado.
The rumors have touched many in the Phillies' clubhouse, from Hamels to Shane Victorino to Jimmy Rollins to Hunter Pence to Juan Pierre. The general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., takes a break from his phone, from balancing requests for Hamels with negotiations with Hamels, and leans against the batting cage.
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Does he scatter the late-great Phillies to pennant races elsewhere? Can Hamels be signed barely three months from free agency? Or does he believe in what showed up three months ago as a presumed favorite in the NL East now that it's healthy and together again? Halladay threw five innings in his return, four of them scoreless. He pitched at 90 and 91 mph, rode the corners at times, and allowed two runs when he didn't. He was good, certainly good enough for one night, and these become the moments Amaro must judge against the greater beast.
After five consecutive division championships and 29 postseason victories over that time, it's a helluva way to spend the last two weeks in July. To look up and find this ballclub 13 games behind the Nationals, 9½ games out in the wild card, August coming fast, none of that was supposed to happen.
Just to complicate matters, Howard's Achilles' is healed, Utley's knees are mostly workable, Halladay is – as of Tuesday night – recovered from a lat strain, so the Phillies are whole again. So, either the Phillies are back and ready to make a spirited run at a postseason berth or they're back and, you know, still aren't good enough, which would go a long way toward explaining all those scouts hanging around.
Over the past 21 days, Utley made his season debut, then Howard did, and then Halladay came off the disabled list. In that time the Phillies lost five games in the standings.
What we took from that: For what went wrong over more than three months, all that and more would have to go right over the next 2½. That means Howard and Utley, especially. And that means Halladay, for another.
It could happen. It probably won't. The Phillies have won four games in a row. The great Halladay came back and pitched well. They beat the Dodgers on Tuesday night in front of all of those scouts, 3-2, on a late Hunter Pence single. Cliff Lee pitches Wednesday afternoon. And it still probably won't.
First, Howard and Utley will need rest. Second, they're supposed to lead the Phillies back from this mess. Third, they may not have it in them.
Amaro thinks it over, and so does manager Charlie Manuel, who knows it's time to go to the whip, but might not have the horses for it.
"People are hollerin', 'You gotta win, you gotta win, you gotta win,' " Manuel said. "You want the best team on the field."
It's not just the fans, either. Management has these decisions to make, expensive ones, critical ones. It must decide whether this season is worth saving and, if not, what next season will look like.
"Basically," Manuel said, "it's like they expect us to win some games. It's going to dictate what happens, I guess. They haven't said exactly what that is. At the same time, in these meetings, the way things develop, where we're at and how we're playing at the trading deadline, that's going to dictate a lot."
It's who the Phillies are today, and who they'll probably be tomorrow. And that's surreal.
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