Like a stone, as in the Phillies' playoff hopes are sinking like one. Of course they're not finished, but this is as bad as things have been. Four games under .500 is the furthest below the mark the Fightins have fallen all season, last reaching this low point after a 2-1 loss against San Diego on May 12. The last time they were 8.5 back was June 1... 2007.
Meanwhile, the Nationals own their largest lead of the season in the NL East at three games, and they are starting to build a case for legitimacy. Washington is 13-6 over the past 19, winning six of seven to top it off. Their success prompts a new question: no, not are the Phillies out of it, but at what point does the immediate focus shift to a Wild Card berth?
'07 stands out because, as everybody knows, "the team to beat" went on to win the division that year. However, their remarkable run to the playoffs was aided in great part by their foe at the time, the New York Mets, whose epic collapse enabled the Phils to sneak in on the final day of the season. The Mets watched like helpless bystanders as a seven-game lead melted away over little more than two weeks in September.
It could happen to anyone, I suppose, including the Nationals. There's a big difference in 2012 though, that being Washington is more like Philadelphia in '07 than the present-day Phillies are. Young, hungry, and eager to prove they belong, there's a lot of baseball left to play, but they don't appear to be going anywhere without a fight.
Perhaps the greatest difference is what, or whom, is driving each team? The catalyst for the Nationals during their recent surge has been Bryce Harper, who over the past 19 games has seen his batting average rise from .230 to .295, to go along with 18 runs, four home runs, and 19 RBI. The Phillies, what's left of them anyway, all seem to be asleep at the wheel, and if you're expecting Chase Utley or Ryan Howard to serve as a spark in a similar manner, we're talking about 30-somethings coming off of injuries, not a 19-year-old perennial All Star-in-the-making.
The answer to our question at the top depends on how you feel about the rest of the clubs in the East, but the time has come to admit the Nats could be a force to be reckoned with this year. None of this matters if the Phillies don't start to pick up the pieces themselves, but even if they turn the ship around and fast, they may have given Washington too big of a head start.
Minnesota spent a good portion of the early part of the season as the worst team in baseball, and still own the worst record in the AL, but I wouldn't be chalking up Phils victories just yet. The Twins are 9-3 in their last 12, and have been playing at a plus-.500 clip since mid-May. Theyve been feeding off a lower class of opponents, but it's not like the Fightins are vastly better right now.
The difference for Minnesota has been at the plate, specifically with a young player named Ben Revere. Revere bounced up and down between the big club and the minors, but since his call-up on May 17, he's been one of the more productive hitters in the league. The 24-year-old centerfielder leads the club with a .327 average and nine stolen bases, and for the month of June, he cracks the top five for hits and runs in the American League.
Pitching is their downfall though. The Twins have the worst ERA in the league, and the only starter in their rotation with an ERA under 4.00 is Scott Diamond, who is 5-1 with a 1.61 ERA. Naturally, the Phils will catch the 25-year-old rookie in Game 3.
Blue Jays (31-30)
Toronto has taken a roller-coaster ride to it's .500-ish record. Ranking third in the AL in run production, and second in home runs, the Jays have the ability to break out for double-digit runs on any given night. Their dangerous lineup is powered by RF Jose Bautista and DH Edwin Encarnacion, who are both tied for fourth with an identical 17 home runs and 44 RBI -- though Bautista is more boom or bust, sporting a .228 average this season.
The Blue Jays haven't been able to get consistent production out of their pitching staff though. Unlike the Twins and Orioles, they're not littered with starters who have astronomical earned run averages, but they are lacking that dominant presence. If you can get to those guys, Toronto owns one of the worst bullpens in the league, currently ranked 13th in the AL.
On deck: vs. Colorado, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Pittsburgh, @ Miami