Of course April 16 is far too early to make much of the standings in the NL East... but it's not too early to take a peak, and who's that in first?
You see, the problem is not so much that the Phillies currently reside in fourth place in this season nine games old, trailing the upstart division-leading Nationals by 2.5. The problem is that the Nationals are actually in excellent position to build up a solid lead over the course of the next week and a half.
Tonight, Washington begins a four-game set with the lowly Houston Astros, followed by three games with a Miami Marlins squad that hasn't exactly been lighting the world on fire so far, and finally three with the San Diego Padres, who you will read more about below.
Meanwhile, the Phillies are beginning a 10-game west coast swing tonight. Depending on how they fare, and whether or not the Nats can capitalize on the seemingly light slate ahead for them, this could quickly become a fairly intimidating lead before a month's worth of baseball has even been played.
So far, the Nationals are taking care of their business. They took two of three off a sorry Cubs team, two of three off the moderately surprising Mets -- but they're still the Mets -- and three of four off an average Reds club. If they can keep it up, Washington's series with the Los Angeles Dodgers starting April 27 could be on a collision course to feature two of the best records from the National League.
I suppose we should be grateful the Phillies will manage to avoid the white-hot LA Dodgers on this trip, owners of the best record in baseball and a six-game winning streak. In fact, the Dodgers aren't on the docket until June, and hopefully at least Chase Utley will be back by then.
Instead, the first west coast swing of the season features dates in San Francisco and San Diego, both of whom have been slow out of the gate, with a stop in Arizona on the way back, where five of the club's six wins have come at the expense of the aforementioned.
The Giants (4-5) got off to a rough start in Arizona, eating a three-game sweep served up by their division rival, but have since rebounded. San Fran is 4-2 over their last six, with the big difference coming on the mound. After allowing five or more runs in each game against the Dbacks, the Giants have held opponents to three or fewer in all four of their victories.
So far, the missing link is still Tim Linececum, who will start tonight's game against the Phillies. Lincecum is 0-1 with a 12.91 ERA in two starts, most recently allowing six earned runs in 2.1 frames against the Colorado Rockies. If he finally gets it going tonight, this series becomes a big early test for Philly.
The Padres (2-8) have been mired in a perfect storm of putrid offense and lousy pitching. They've been held to two or fewer runs in half their games, while allowing four or more in eight of ten so far. In the National League, only the Pirates have been worse at the plate across the board.
Let's be perfectly honest: the Fightins haven't been much better than San Diego at the dish, but Philly's starting pitching is keeping them in games. Pads starters on the other hand have thrown just 54.1 innings, while their relievers have been called upon for 38. By comparison, the Phils have only needed 22 innings from their bullpen in 2012 -- a huge disparity for 6% of the way through the season.
The Diamondbacks (6-3), as we mentioned, may have padded their win total a bit by jumping all over the Giants and Padres, but the Rocks may have pulled them back down to earth over the weekend. Colorado took two of three off of Arizona, a club that has had little trouble producing runs (tied for 4th in the NL), though they haven't exactly kept anybody other than San Diego off of the scoreboard.
The Dbacks have posted five or more runs in two-thirds of their games so far, but the Giants and Rockies also averaged that total against Arizona, revealing possible vulnerabilities for the reigning NL West Champions. Whether the Phillies can take advantage remains to be seen, but there is at least an expectation that runs should not come quite as easily for Zona either.
We'll check back in with the standings when the Phils return home, where they'll be getting back down to business with a series of NL East opponents -- including a head-to-head with the pesky Nationals.
On deck: Cubs, Braves, Nats, Mets