LOS ANGELES -- Davey Lopes doesnt see as much of the Phillies as he did when he coached first base for the club from 2007 to 2010, but he still sees them enough to know they are the clear-cut favorite to get to the World Series in the National League.
Lopes, now first base coach for the Dodgers, just finished watching the Phillies for three days in Los Angeles, and he sees enough of them on television its easy to keep up with those early-starting East Coast games out West to know they are better than ever.
Obviously the pitching is better. Thats a given, he said, referring to the addition of Cliff Lee. The key is the pitching. It can shut you down. They have the No. 1 starting pitching in the game.
Lopes likes the addition of Hunter Pence. (Who doesnt?) The Philllies are 11-1 since Pence joined the team. He has hit .347 with three homers and nine RBIs in 12 games.
He really balances out their lineup, Lopes said.
Besides starting pitching, several areas of the Phillies team leap out at Lopes.
I think Ryan Madson has really stepped up his game, Lopes said. Brad Lidge had that perfect season in 2008, but this guy is about as good as anyone in the National League right now at closing the door.
Hes got that great changeup with that fastball. I see a confidence, a real confidence factor, in him. He doesnt get upset if he gives up a hit early. It seems like Chooch catcher Carlos Ruiz has done a good job taking charge with him.
Lopes pointed toward lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo as another pitcher that has improved. Bastardo has a 1.41 ERA in 48 games and has prevented 27 of 29 inherited runners from scoring. Good health has been a factor in Bastardos rise. Lopes revealed that Bastardo had trouble feeling the ball because of numbness in his fingers the last two seasons. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the problem stemmed from a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome and said the club still monitors Bastardo, who hasnt had any problems this season.
Bastardo always had the physical tools, Lopes said. He had some problems I know with the circulation in his fingers, but now hes outstanding.
The third area of improvement that jumps out at Lopes is his old friend Shane Victorino. Lopes has known Victorino since they were together briefly with the San Diego Padres in 2003. Later, as a member of the Phillies staff, Lopes helped hone Victorinos base-stealing skills. Victorino is having a strong 2011 season. He is ranked in the top 10 in the NL in batting average (.312), on-base percentage (.391) and slugging percentage (.542).
Vics good, Lopes said with a smile. Hes good. Hes a real key player. He may have surpassed a couple of other guys over there.
Im not going to say, Lopes said with a laugh.
But Vic has definitely become one of their top guys, he added. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins. Hes smack in the middle of there. Charlie Manuel can use him a lot of different ways in the batting order. Hes grown up. Hes grown up mentally. Hes a true veteran now.
Lopes, a former all-star, Gold Glove second baseman and two-time NL stolen base champ, is not surprised that Rollins has performed well. Since July 1, the Phillies shortstop is hitting .295 with six homers, 22 RBIs and a .371 on-base percentage.
The easy thing is to say its because its his contract year, Lopes said. But Jimmy is always going to be Jimmy. Hes got a lot of physical ability. I think the expectations for him soared after the MVP season 2007 and the last couple of years the injuries got the best of him. But when hes healthy, hes one of the best players in the league. Hes still the key to that club. When hes on and doing all the things he can, it makes it very difficult for an opponent.
Hes a smart player, and hes finally healthy. That double-play combination is still as good as any in the game. Both play with pain.
Lopes knows about the pain that plagued Utley, Rollins double-play mate, as he wrestled with knee tendinitis last year. Lopes was actually the only member of the organization to acknowledge that Utley was hurting. The rest of the organization including Utley himself would not admit that anything was wrong, but Lopes has never been one to hide anything.
Maybe now youre seeing why Chases numbers came down, Lopes said. He didnt say anything, but he was playing hurt. He was hurting a lot. A lot of guys wouldnt have played.
Lopes said that Utleys sore knee affected his balance at the plate.
He didnt have his foundation, Lopes said. He was too good of a hitter to lose balance on off-speed pitches the way he did.
Lopes sees an improved Utley now.
He absolutely looks better, Lopes said. Hes running normal now. I talked to him the other day and he said, I finally feel healthy. Thats not good for opponents.
During his time with the Phillies, Lopes was privy to the inner mindset of the organization. The phrase championship window is thrown around often in media commentary about the Phils, but the concept is most certainly not a media creation.
You heard that all the time, Lopes said. Everybody over there knows it. They figured they had another few years to win again. The guys were getting into their 30s, and things are different when you get to be about 35. You dont get to balls you used to. Injuries pop up.
The window is wide open for the Phillies this year. They have the majors best record, the majors best pitching staff, and the offense, which was inconsistent in the early months of the season, has averaged an NL-high 5.42 runs per game since July 1.
The Phillies have got everything, Lopes said. Not too many teams match up with them.
Lopes warned that anything can happen in a short playoff series. He has personally seen what the Giants pitching can do to the Phillies and he thinks the Braves and Brewers are both very formidable clubs.
The Phillies are a great team, but short series are dangerous, Lopes said.
Lopes said he misses the Phillies, but has no regrets about moving back West and joining the team with which he spent the majority of his playing career.
This is where I belong, the 66-year-old baseball lifer said. I had four great years in Philly, but I started here, and I grew up here. Ill finish here.
And hell watch the 2011 Phillies from afar, just to see if they can go all the way.
E-mail Jim Salisbury at email@example.com