Inside the NL East Standings: As Tight As It Gets?

Inside the NL East Standings: As Tight As It Gets?

You have to wonder how much longer things can stay the way they are now in the NL East, with all five clubs currently playing above .500, none more than three games out of first place. You have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last time every team in the division was .500 or better after May, when rather amazingly they actually finished that way.

If something like that were to happen here again, it probably bodes well for the Phillies. The Braves won the pennant that season with 90 wins. The only time it's taken a lower total since then was in '07, when the Fightins edged out the Mets on the final day of the season with 89.

How exactly does that benefit the Phils? They're currently on pace to finish with 84, which in all likelihood wouldn't even be enough to qualify for a Wild Card berth, let alone come out on top of their division. Washington is currently on course to win 94.

The good news is they probably don't need to get to 102, and history suggests in such close races, they may not even need 90. The Phillies played better baseball in the month of May, finishing 16-11, and are possibly still on the upswing, going 12-6 over their last 18, so there is still time to put themselves in a favorable position, and as opponents beat up on one another, for others to fall around them.

Where they really need to improve is against their own division. The biggest difference in '05 was Atlanta's success against the rest of the East, going 42-33 against rivals. The Phillies were 38-37, and finished two games back. In fact, the team with the best record in the division has won it every year going back to '04, but these games are especially meaningful in a tight race. The Phils are 9-12 right now, but they have plenty of opportunity to head back in the right direction, beginning tonight against the Marlins.

Plus, help is on the way. As many followers have been quick to point out, the Phillies managed to hang within three games of first place, and 1.5 back of the second wild card, despite going without two of their biggest stars, while facing numerous injuries along the way. The longer the lead is tightly contested, the greater their chances to pull ahead quickly once reinforcements arrive.

vs. Miami (29-22)

The Phillies have seen every division opponent, including the Nats and Mets twice, since they last played the Marlins, taking two of three in their second series of the season. It's been a tale of two months for Miami though -- after going 8-14 in April, they just completed a best-in-Majors 21-8 May that elevated them back into contention for the NL East lead. Finishing a sweep over Washington yesterday didn't hurt matters, either.

The Marlins are just all-around hot right now. Tonight's starter, Mark Buehrle, had four of his five wins last month, and Carlos Zambrano, who goes on Sunday, went 3-1 with a 2.85 ERA. Offense allowed the less effective Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson to reach three wins in May as well. Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton were among the most productive hitters in the NL over the past 31 days, both of them landing inside the top eight players for hits and RBI. They are a dangerous opponent on all fronts.

vs. LA Dodgers (32-19)

The Phillies recently received a bit of good news about their upcoming series with the Dodgers. National League MVP candidate Matt Kemp went on the 15-day DL this week, knocking LA's most potent offensive weapon out of the picture. That could also have a serious impact on two-time All Star Andre Ethier, who currently leads the league with 44 RBI.

It's always about pitching when you talk about the Dodgers though, and once again, they have one of the best staffs in baseball. The club's 3.20 ERA is second in the NL, and while everybody knows about Clayton Kershaw, their best stuff has come from an unlikely source. At 7-1 with a 2.14 ERA, 33-year-old Chris Capuano is in the midst of a career year. He's never finished a full season with an ERA below 3.95.

With or without Kemp, this figures to be a huge four-game series for the Phils against the club with the best record in the NL.

@ Baltimore (29-22)

The Orioles have been a pleasant surprise this season, but are currently mired in a five-game losing streak, and have dropped eight of their last 10. They've been tied for the AL East lead or ahead since May 6, and for much of April before that, but it won't last at this rate. As you can see, just like the NL East, all five teams are above .500.

Baltimore still has a pretty good team, with an offense keyed by a breakout season for centerfielder Adam Jones. The 26 year old already has 16 home runs (t-3rd) and 34 RBI (t-8th), and leads his team with a .314 average as well. Unfortunately, their pitching has become a sore spot of late, carrying a 4.16 ERA in the month of May. The Orioles allowed six or more runs in five of the previous 10 games, and at least four in all eight during this rough patch.

They still have the best bullpen in baseball (2.32 ERA), and Jason Hammel (6-2, 3.06) and Wei-Yin Chen (4-1, 3.31) have been quality up front, but the rest of the Orioles rotation has been horrendous.

On Deck: @ Minnesota (18-32), @ Toronto (27-24), vs. Colorado (21-29)

Mackanin benches Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders as Howie Kendrick ramps up rehab

Mackanin benches Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders as Howie Kendrick ramps up rehab

Having seen his team's offense produce just six hits and one run in the previous two games, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin benched Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders on Tuesday night.

The benchings could last more than one game.

"I'm not going to tip my hand because I don't know what my hand is yet," Mackanin said. "I feel like I have to do something to get some offense in the lineup and there comes a point in time where I'm trying different things.

"At this level you've got to produce. You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship."

Franco and Saunders opened the season hitting fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Phillies' batting order.

Entering play Tuesday, Franco was hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Saunders was hitting .227 with a .273 on-base percentage and a .383 slugging percentage.

Franco was leading the team with 28 RBIs and tied for second with six homers, but his inconsistency and inability to harness his free-swinging approach was wearing on Mackanin. Franco swung wildly at breaking balls on Monday night and struck out twice. The 24-year-old third baseman has worked hard on developing a more disciplined approach with hitting coach Matt Stairs, but has been unable to consistently incorporate those adjustments into his game.

Mackanin said he was surprised by Franco's consistent struggles. He hoped the benching would take some pressure off the player.

"Befuddled is a good word," Mackanin said. "As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"You've heard me say this many times: Hitting is like riding a bike. I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. Guys have to figure it out. They have to figure out how to get the job done. Whether it's cut down on your swing, choke up, use a different bat, use a different stance, do something different. If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Andres Blanco started at third base in place of Franco and Ty Kelly was in the lineup in left field with Aaron Altherr moving into Saunders' spot in right.

Quite notable was that on the same day that Franco and Saunders went to the bench, Howie Kendrick ramped up his rehab from an abdominal strain. He took batting practice outdoors for the first time since the April 15 injury. He could be ready for a minor-league rehab assignment later this week and be ready to play in the majors next week. Kendrick can play both corner outfield spots and both corner infield spots, so he could push Franco and Saunders for work if he hits and they continue to struggle.

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

The Phillies are a lifeless team right now.

For a while the starting pitching was the biggest issue, then it was the bullpen, now it's the offense. The Phils have hit .224 since May 12, which was when their 2-7 road trip began. 

Their .268 on-base percentage over that span is worst in the majors and their .613 OPS is better than only the Mariners.

Players up and down the lineup are slumping. Odubel Herrera has hit .207 with a .246 OBP since the ninth game of the season. Michael Saunders hasn't given them much at any point. Maikel Franco had an eight-game hit streak snapped Monday, but even still is hitting .221 with a .281 on-base percentage. 

At this point, why not bring up Roman Quinn and play him every day? It makes too much sense right now.

Daniel Nava went on the 10-day DL Monday with a hamstring strain suffered Friday in Pittsburgh. It doesn't seem to be a serious injury, but why not use the open space as an excuse to bring Quinn up for at least a few days and see what he's got?

Quinn could infuse some energy and life to the top of a sputtering lineup. Bat him second, play him in the corner outfield and see what happens. At the very least, he'd be a defensive upgrade over Saunders. At the most, Quinn's hunger to stick in the majors could result in a hot streak that sparks the top of the order the way Herrera does when he's hot.

Quinn is hitting lately at Triple A, batting .333 with a .424 OBP over his last 15 games. He showed last September that he can be an offensive catalyst with his ability to beat out infield singles, bunt for hits and spray the ball. Yes, he strikes out too much for a leadoff-type hitter, but it's just hard to see the downside of a call-up right now.

The argument against bringing Quinn up now is that it's too early to sour on Saunders, a player the Phillies signed in hopes of trading at some point. But think about how much Saunders would have to do to have worthwhile trade value. Yeah, you could flip him somewhere for a negligible return or some salary relief, but he'd have to be extremely productive for at least a month to get a team interested in trading a minor-leaguer of any value for him.

Pete Mackanin has tried many things to spark the Phils' lineup, moving Herrera and Franco down, sitting guys, challenging guys. The best solution, perhaps the only solution right now, might be a move made over his head to promote the Phils' speedy, switch-hitting outfielder who has a future with them so long as he stays on the field, which he has this season.

As for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro, who have also hit very well at Triple A, they just happen to play the same positions as Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, who have been the Phillies' most reliable bats the last few weeks.