Phillies over .500 for 1st time since Opening Day

The Philadelphia Phillies are mighty proud of their run of five

straight NL East championships.

So don’t expect a new slogan on the cover of the game

program:

”The Phillies: Best Last-Place Team in Baseball!”

Slowly, the Phillies are finding their winning ways in the most

competitive division in baseball.

Roy Halladay pitched the Phillies past the Chicago Cubs 8-7 on

Thursday night for their fifth straight win. The Phillies have won

six of seven and are over .500 for the first time since an Opening

day victory as they head into a three-game weekend series against

the Boston Red Sox.

What seemed during hot-stove season as a potential World Series

showdown is instead a battle between two teams looking to get out

of the cellar.

The Phillies could escape last place first. They are 20-19

thanks to the recent hot streak, which is good enough to move them

four games behind division-leading Atlanta. The only last-place

team in baseball with a winning record, the Phillies are stuck

behind Washington, New York and Miami.

Five-time All-Star second baseman Chase Utley has yet to take a

cut for the Phillies. Same with 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard. Cliff Lee,

a 17-game winner last season, is winless. Starting pitcher Vance

Worley is on the DL with right elbow inflammation. Jim Thome is out

with back problems.

Oh, and Halladay’s win was his first in a month.

”It took us awhile to get back to .500,” manager Charlie

Manuel said. ”Now, we have to stay there and move on.”

Lee will win a game, of course. Plenty of them. Halladay will

get on roll because that’s what the two-time Cy Young Award winner

always does.

It’s why the Phillies believe this unfamiliar place in the

standings is just a pit stop.

Utley and Howard’s returns are more in doubt.

Utley (knees) fielded grounders for the first time with the

Phillies before Wednesday night’s game. Howard, who injured his

left Achilles tendon on the final swing of 2011, has made nice

progress and started some light running. There is no timetable for

a return.

So the Phillies wait.

They’ve passed the time with a recent offensive surge that has

rest of the National League wondering if the Phillies have burst

out of their season-long slumber for good. This Phillies rank among

the top five in the National League this month with a .285 average,

17 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Carlos Ruiz has morphed into a mini-Howard to carry the

Phillies.

Long a fan favorite in Philadelphia, the catcher had his sixth

career four-hit game and drove in three runs against the Cubs on

Thursday. Known as Chooch, Ruiz is having a May to remember,

batting .429 with 17 RBIs in 15 games.

”He’s the best catcher in the National League and we’ve said

that for years,” Halladay said. ”Unfortunately, you’ve got to hit

to get that notoriety and he’s doing that now. Hopefully, people

take notice.”

Hard not to notice, especially without the stars in the lineup

to overshadow him.

Just a little more than week ago, Manuel was so frustrated with

Philadelphia’s erratic start that he called a team meeting and gave

his players an earful after they were swept in a three-game series

by the Mets that dropped them four games under .500.

”I know we can get better, that we can play better baseball,”

Manuel said.

They went out and fattened their record against some of the

weakest teams in the league. They took two of three from San Diego,

then swept brief two-game series against the Houston Astros and

Cubs to enter the Red Sox series on a hot streak.

The Red Sox are 18-20 and 6 1/2 games behind first-place

Baltimore in the AL East. They’ll see a familiar face in closer in

Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a $50 million, four-year contract

with the Phillies in November, the richest deal ever for a

reliever. He was a four-time All-Star in seven seasons with the Red

Sox, and helped them win the 2007 World Series title.

Papelbon has 10 saves and would love to add to that total this

weekend.

Last place or not in May, the Phillies still believe he’ll be

adding to that total in October.