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Richard Justice

Phils remain dangerous despite lackluster start

Justice: Phils dangerous despite lackluster start

Phils remain dangerous despite lackluster start
ST. LOUIS -- Once the six-run lead disappeared Thursday night, the Phillies could see where this one was headed.

"What has happened to us is a test of character," center fielder Shane Victorino said later. "What kind of team are we? We have to check ourselves."

Shed no tears for them. Don't underestimate them, either.

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"We're going to be OK," manager Charlie Manuel said.

Manuel says this almost every day. He believes it, too. That's because he believes in his guys. He has been frustrated a couple of times this season, but so have his players, his bosses, almost everyone associated with this club.

"First of all, it's easy for me to vent," Manuel said. "As long as people don't see it, I'm okay."

Where do you vent, Charlie?

"In my room mostly," he said.

Manuel laughs about this because he's not about to let the rest of us see him sweat. Besides, there's a track record here. The Phils have won five straight division championships. Along the way, they've established a reputation of being smart, tough and resilient.

"We're a good team," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "That's not a question."

And?

"It just hasn't shown up," he said.

That's the thing about teams that have won a lot. They don't just know how to win. They expect to win. Even with the middle of the lineup on the disabled list. Even with seven other players sidelined. Even with Manuel forced to mix-and-match his lineups almost nightly.

Five players have started at first base for the Phillies. Three have gotten the nod at second. Manuel has used four cleanup hitters, seven fifth-place hitters.

The Phils knew it would be this way once they realized they wouldn't have Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for a large portion of this season.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. focused his offseason work on shoring up the bench. Good thing, too.

The Phillies have gotten huge contributions from Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre, Pete Orr and others.

"I've always thought we could keep our head above water and stay in contention," Manuel said. "I think if we have the right mindset, we'll do that. I know exactly where we're at. I know we can do better than we're doing right now. I feel that way."

Manuel is talking about intangible things, the stuff that sometimes separates championship teams from the rest.

The Phils still have that great rotation -- No. 1 in the National League in quality starts, strikeouts and innings. Their bullpen has allowed four earned runs in its past 19 innings.

Defense? Only the Braves have committed fewer errors.

Offense? After averaging just 3.3 runs a game in April, the Phillies have bumped that number close to five in May.

The devil is in the details. They've won only twice when trailing after six innings, none when trailing after seven.

"We've just haven't gotten the hits with runners on third or a deep fly ball with less than two outs," Rollins said.

In other words, the Phils are close to being really good again. They're hopeful of getting Howard back from a torn Achilles tendon before the All-Star break. They're less certain when Utley's aching knees will allow to play, but haven't give up on getting him back as well.

"You've got an idea of who you are coming into the season and then it's evaporated," Rollins said. "It takes awhile when you've got new characters. April was a bad month. May has been a lot better in many ways. Hopefully, we can stay above .500 and have our traditional push. We're getting a better idea of who we are."

All things considered, it could be a lot worse. They have a 23-23 record through Thursday. They're still in last place in the NL East, but only four games out of first.

Very little has come easy for these Phillies, and that was true Thursday in the first game of a four-game series against the Cardinals.

The Phils ran up a 6-0 lead off Cards starter Jake Westbrook in the first two innings, and then watched the World Series champions chip away at it inning by inning.

Yadier Molina's two-run home run tied it 7-7 in the bottom of the fifth.

"There was some people on the bench getting a little quiet," Manuel said.

But the Phillies got a tiebreaking single from Freddy Galvis in the sixth and ended up winning, 10-9.

To survive a game they essentially were forced to win twice is exactly the kind of thing Manuel has been looking for.

"That was a really good game for us," Manuel said. "The hits we got, that's definitely a confidence booster. It shows me how we can be."

In the end, it's just one game, a really good one, but just one. And the Phils are still in last place and don't have Howard and Utley back in the lineup.

"It is what it is," Victorino said. "You can't sit here and say, 'If we had these guys...' I don't look at it that way. That's the thing people keep talking about. 'If those two guys were in the lineup, it would be this, this and this.' We don't know that. We just have to keep battling."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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