Ahead of schedule, the Philadelphia Phillies have left the rest of the National League East behind.
In recent seasons, the Phillies have waited until August to throw their game into overdrive. The surge started in July this season as the Phillies opened the month with a 14-3 burst.
The rest of the division had its chance when the Phillies had a fitful start, going 37-34 through June 26. That opportunity is long gone. Only second-place Atlanta, which has nine more games against Philadelphia, has a slender chance of reeling in the Phillies.
Good luck with that. The odds are stacked against the Braves. The Phillies are again showing why Charlie Manuel is a top-shelf but underappreciated manager.
The best managers know how to make their clubs improve during a season. Those managers set a tone for the club by staying calm during rocky starts. They excel at evaluating their personnel and putting players in positions where they have the best chance at success. They are not afraid to act.
Manuel fits that description.
This season offers the latest chapter in a long-running trend. Manuel’s teams play better as the season progresses.
Manuel took over in Philadelphia with the 2005 season. In Manuel’s time, the Phillies are barely a .500 club (181-179) before the All-Star break and a whirlwind after the break. They began Wednesday’s play with a .608 winning percentage (178-115) in the second half under Manuel.
“We know we still have to play the game,” All-Star second baseman Chase Utley said. “But we do have confidence that we can play better and better during the season because we’ve done it before.”
This season’s club showed the quirk of playing poorly at home for a while. The Phillies had a 13-22 start at Citizens Bank Park. They rallied from that low point and had won 11 of the last 12 home games entering Wednesday’s play.
That’s important, because the Phillies went 7-0 at home during the postseason and 55-33 at home overall last season.
“We don’t panic,” All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard said. “Everybody was in an uproar about the home record and that kind of stuff, but nobody in the locker room panicked. We knew we were going to play better. It was just a matter of time.”
The pattern of strong finishes by Manuel-managed clubs started during his 2 1/2 seasons with Cleveland.
The Indians were a .514 team (132-125) team before the break and a .575 team (88-65) after the break under Manuel. General manager Mark Shapiro may not have considered that when he fired Manuel during the 2002 All-Star break, with the club at 39-47.
That firing still stings Manuel. After the Phillies won the World Series last fall, Manuel cheerfully told a reporter from Ohio, “Why don’t you go back to Cleveland and tell them that we won a World Series?”
The World Series triumph validated Manuel’s work. Those closest to him have known his strength for a long time.
“Charlie is a player’s manager,” Howard said. “To know that he has confidence in me, I think that breeds more confidence. You just want to go out there and play hard and try to prove him right.”
That does not mean Manuel coddles players and ducks tough decisions. The opposite is true. Consider his handling of linchpin shortstop Jimmy Rollins during the last two seasons.
A year ago, Manuel benched Rollins for failing to hustle. This season, Manuel benched a slumping Rollins for four games in late June.
Each time, Rollins responded as Manuel wanted by igniting hot stretches. That included hitting .371 with a .446 on-base percentage, six steals and 15 runs in the 14-3 stretch.
The Phillies need all the offense they can get. Unless the Phillies trade for an elite starter such as Toronto right-hander Roy Halladay or Cleveland left-hander Cliff Lee, they will go into the postseason with a rotation so questionable that aged right-hander Pedro Martinez will soon get a shot.
Through Tuesday, the rotation was 35-22 with a 4.73 ERA, not the stuff of the traditional World Series contender. As a habit, the Phillies do not win low-scoring games. They were 4-25 when scoring fewer than four runs.
The powerful offense has carried the club.
Consider this. After Tuesday’s win against the Chicago Cubs, the Phillies had an NL-high 12 victories for games in which they trailed by three or more runs at any point. Colorado and Milwaukee were second in the category with eight wins each. San Francisco, a wild-card contender, had zero wins for games in which it trailed by three or more runs.
The comebacks speak to the Phillies’ ability to hammer mediocre pitching. Most of those pitchers will be home when the postseason begins. The Phillies have improved since opening day, but Charlie Manuel has more work to do. History says he will find a way to complete the task.