|The hopes of another postseason may rest on these two players.|
We are creeping up on the All-Star Break and the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of five consecutive NL East Division championships, sit eight games behind the NL East leading Washington Nationals, and are ten games back in the loss column. At 35-40 the Phillies are in unfamiliar territory right now and just hoping to stay in the running for a postseason spot in the first year of the expanded playoffs with an extra wild card. Winning the division for a sixth straight season seems out of reach, and perhaps it is.
But is it impossible? No, but it is a steep uphill battle.
While this season has largely been negative, perhaps the second half of the season will be a different story. Here are some keys to a return to the postseason.
Chase Utley's return
Chase Utley is expected to return to the team on Wednesday, but how much can we really expect form him? More importantly, how stable will his knees be once he is back at the big league level and feeling the pressure of needing to pick the team up?
Eternal Optimistic Phillies Fan says Utley's return improves the team by having a player that has been a part of the core back at second base, leaving Michael Martinez and Mike Fontenot on the bench, where they belong. Even Utley at less than 100 percent should be better than having Martinez and/or Fontenot in the lineup, correct?
Maybe Utley's bat will be a fraction of what he is fully capable of (even in his downward trend at the plate) but he may be more capable of driving a ball to the outfield when needed to move a base-runner along and taking more pitches to get on base.
I'll take it, for now.
Roy Halladay's return
When Roy Halladay returns to the starting rotation you would think that he will be ready to reurn to form. Halladay has been working hard since joining the team and perhaps has been tired out in the process. Giving him rest while on the disabled list may be just what he needs to get straightened out. Imagine if Halladay comes back and is more like the Halladay we all know and love. At this stage it would be like trading for a top-flight starting pitcher for the second half of the season.
Halladay probably will not be back with the team until near the end of July, but all reports seem to suggest he is doing well with rehab work. Having a strong and healthy Halladay for August and September could be very good.
Ryan Howard's return
The last piece of the puzzle could be the return of Ryan Howard. Nobody knows when this will happen but he is looking to begin rehab assignments next week. Once he does begin rehab work, the countdown to activate him will officially be on, and barring any setbacks that would mean the Phillies could have Howard activated by the end of July.
Like Utley, Howard;s offensive power may be diminished but if he can stay healthy and in the lineup pitchrs will have to show an ounce of respect when pitching to Howard that they do not necessarily need to show to Ty Wigginton or John Mayberry Jr. That makes things, in theory, better for Hunter Pence in the lineup as well.
As long as nobody else hits the injury bug, the Phillies could look a little more familiar to the common fan. Will the Phillies with an infield featuring Utley and Howard on the right side of the infield be able to dig out of the hole they are currently in? Probably not, but if the Phillies can find a way to get a few games over .500 by the end of July, then things may be a bit different.
Right now the Phillies are 4.5 games out of the Wild Card, but that includes five teams that need to be jumped. The good news is two of those teams are in their own division (Atlanta and New York), which means the Phillies have to start playing better within their own division.
We have said all season long that if the Phillies can hang in the playoff picture until Utley and Howard return to the lineup that they will be OK. As bad as things have been, and as inconsistent as they have played on a regular basis they still are technically in the hunt. I don't want to lower expectations, as I'm sure you do not either, but let;s keep things in perspective. The ultimate goal is to reach the postseason by any means necessary. the focus may have to be on the wild card at this point, at least for now. If the Phillies can find a way to put together a little win streak, the entire outlook for the season could change dramatically.
At least, for the Eternally Optimistic Phillies fan.