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Sizzling Phillies taking it step by step

Sizzling Phillies taking it step by step

NEW YORK -- Take the good vibes of this weekend's sweep of the Mets, slap on a little self-confidence and tape it together with so many strands of newfound optimism, and the sum is nothing less than a shiny new playoff berth.

Maybe.

The Phillies again have the playoffs in their sights -- if not yet in their grasp -- but they've learned that achieving that much means nothing. So what if they beat the Mets? So what if they looked dominant doing it? They haven't won anything yet, and if the season ended today, they'd be on the outside looking in.

"We're still in second," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "You can write it any way you want."

That's the cold reality, though it's a truth that's starting to crack. The Phillies now stand 3 1/2 games out of the National League East lead and 1 1/2 behind in the Wild Card race. It's not an ideal situation, but it's a whole lot more rosier than it was three days ago.

Yet this isn't the first time the Phillies have stood in this exact spot. Not three weeks ago, they swept the Mets for four games and pushed their way back into a race they'd been observing from the fringe all season.

That was supposed to be the series that brought this division race to a boil -- and it did, if only for a moment, when the Phillies drew to within two games of first. Then, they lost seven of their first 12 games in September against a trio of non-contenders to bloat the lead back to 6 1/2 games and reduce that boil to a simmer.

Rollins, just after the first Mets series, made a point of noting how the Phillies had yet to win a thing. And how quickly he was proven right. So now, they've seen the ups, they've seen the downs, and they've survived them both. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? Or at the very least, makes you wiser.

"We've been here before," Rollins said. "Hopefully we learned how to go out and play after this series."

The competition is soft, with three games against the injury-wracked Cardinals, three against the fading Braves, and seven against the punchless Nationals. But it's not particularly easier than last time, when the Phillies stumbled against the Marlins, Braves and Rockies. So they'll need to draw, as Rollins noted, on whatever epiphanies they may have found during that losing stretch.

Closer Brett Myers blames the Mets for much of his team's original hangover. The Phillies had battled them, after all, for four draining games, the last three of those decided by a total of four runs. The Phillies were spent, and the rest of the league took advantage.

And now the Phillies realize how.

"We can look back on it and realize what we did last time," said center fielder Aaron Rowand. "After such a high-energy, high-intensity series, we slipped. But now, there's not many games left. Every single game counts. I don't think [a letdown] is going to be as big a deal now."

And this series, unlike the last one, didn't require a whole lot of dramatics. The Phillies stuck to fundamentals and didn't bank on anything spectacular. They simply sat back, waited for the Mets to make mistakes -- and the Mets made many -- and pounced.

So if three weeks ago the Phillies were drained, this time, they claim to be fully charged.

"We just have to maintain our intensity and maintain our focus that we had here, and realize that no matter who we're playing right now, it's important," said Sunday's hero, Greg Dobbs. "If we're capable of doing it against the Mets, we're capable of doing it against other teams. I think if we keep that in mind and if we stay focused, we're going to be okay."

They'd rather be better than okay, and now they're on track. Destiny isn't yet in their hands, but three days ago, it wasn't even in the same time zone. How quickly fortunes change -- for better and for worse.

"You can taste it," Dobbs said. "You can feel it. We're so close."

Again.

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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