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Phillies' chances look mighty healthy

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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Ever since the final out of last year’s World Series, the Phillies have nurtured their own vision of heaven — delivering payback to the Yankees in 2010, celebrating at Citizens Bank Park the way the Bombers finished off their championship in a mountain of arms and legs at their own stadium last November.

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The Phillies want a rematch, badly, although truthfully it wouldn’t matter if the Yankees get squashed by Cliff Lee somewhere along the way. The Phillies could square up with the Rangers or Rays and they’d be fine with that. As long as Broad Street turns into an open-air asylum when it’s all over.

But the stairway to heaven has been littered with obstacles, starting with the realization that trading Lee was an awful mistake. Then came the steady stream of injuries: Every starter except Jayson Werth has been on the DL, 16 players in all. Meanwhile, the Braves put together the ultimate farewell package for Bobby Cox, taking over first place in the NL East on June 1.

While Atlanta still holds a two-game lead, the Phillies think they’re finally ready to bury the ghosts. Both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are scheduled to come off the DL on Tuesday, which would finally allow the Phillies to recreate last year’s dominant lineup.

The Braves, of course, still have Tim Hudson, who can beat anyone, and Jason Heyward is due back after nursing a sore knee. But the loss of Chipper Jones was devastating to the Braves’ chances of hanging on to the top spot. As one talent evaluator said of the race in the East, “The Braves have surprised me, but if the Phillies can stay healthy the rest of the way, it’s hard not to like their chances.”

Crazy, isn’t it, to think the Phillies trailed the Braves by as many as seven games in mid-July, only a few weeks after Utley tore up his right thumb sliding into second base. When Howard and Shane Victorino also succumbed to injuries, the escape hatch was waiting for the Phillies. They could’ve blamed bad luck, packed up, moved on and flipped the calendar to spring training 2011.

But as convenient as the alibi would’ve been, the Phillies wouldn’t touch it. In fact, if they do get back to the World Series, they’ll look back and point to three things.

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The first was last Thursday’s 10-9 win over the Dodgers, when the Phillies came back from a 9-2 deficit with only six outs to go. The damage they inflicted on Jonathan Broxton in the ninth inning was so catastrophic, Joe Torre subsequently busted his closer down a rank. The Phillies rode that tidal wave of momentum into New York and promptly took two of three from the Mets, giving them 18 wins in 23 games.

The second factor has been the acquisition of Roy Oswalt, who in three starts has been awful, adequate and awesome. He threw seven shutout innings in his last start against the Dodgers, which put the Phillies in the conversation for the NL’s best playoff rotation.

If Oswalt’s assimilation is complete, the Phillies arguably have the most dominant short-series rotation in the NL, featuring the resurrected Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay. The Phillies currently line up Hamels in the No. 3 spot, where he breathes easier. Just don’t be fooled by his 7-9 record; it’s an illusion. Baseball Prospectus calculates Hamels would be a 14-game winner if he were getting league-average run support (Hamels has given up 57 runs, but the Phillies have scored only 56 for him).

Nevertheless, Hamels has restored his fastball to its 2008 levels, routinely clocked in the mid-90s. He’s averaging 9.18 strikeouts, his best since 2006, and his ground ball ratio is at a career high.

Hamels’ improvement over a forgettable 2009 has been overshadowed by Halladay, who is nothing less than an assassin from 60 feet, 6 inches. Who knew he’d be this dominant? (Well, actually, everyone).

Halladay leads the NL in strikeouts and is third in wins (15), ERA (2.24) and WHIP (1.01). He’s pulled the Phillies back from the brink too many times to count, so we’ll recount only the most recent. This was on Saturday night in New York, after the Mets had ridden R.A. Dickey to a one-hit, 1-0 shutout over Hamels.

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The Phillies have long since stopped worrying about the Mets as serious competitors in the East. Still, they were embarrassed by their inability to score runs in Citi Field, having gone 36 innings without sending a runner across the plate. That was Halladay’s mandate that night: Keep the Mets down long enough for the Phillies to break the hex.

He did that and more, shutting out the Mets, 4-0. It was the prototype of Halladay dominance, full of cutters and two-seamers on the corners and at the knees — which explains why he’s in the NL’s top 10 in ground ball ratio.

Halladay is factor No. 3 that keeps working in the Phillies’ favor. Even in the worst of times, when their deficit had grown to seven games, they knew Halladay was the difference maker. All the Phillies had to do was persevere during the epidemic of injuries and Halladay would take care of the rest. That’s the blue print in the final 45 games.

"There's just a different feeling here," Halladay said. "Everybody feels like we're a contending team. We always felt that we were going to be in the thick of this. It's going to be fun."

Tagged: Rangers, Braves, Dodgers, Mets, Phillies, Tim Hudson, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels

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