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Phillies reassert themselves as team to beat in National League

PHILADELPHIA -- For all their angst and absences, the Philadelphia Phillies are right back where everyone figured they'd be, in first place in the National League East and showing the potential to dominate a division they've owned in recent years. Among their many positive happenings lately was the return of a refreshed Brad Lidge as closer, just in time to replace bullpen mate Ryan Madson, who finally earned his previously over-stated nickname Mad Dog by sending himself to the disabled list by kicking a metal folding chair that had no intention to fold.

Neither it seems do these Phillies, no matter what befalls them.

The latest from the sick bay? Jimmy Rollins, the face and catalyst of the team, was headed to Florida for rehab on his nagging calf, with, he claims, no timetable for a return to the lineup (others say they're hoping for mid-May but it could be later in the month). Meanwhile, Rollins' dependable backup, Juan Castro, went out with a hamstring strain the other day. Then there's last year's rookie pitching sensation, J.A, Happ, who is here working toward a return from a "forearm'' injury that is awfully close to his elbow.

None of that has kept the Phillies from rebounding from the brief indignity of trailing the temporarily resurgent Mets to beat a stacked Cardinals team three out of four and once again look like the class of the National League. Phillies people reacted with typical nonchalance over the hot streak that took them back into their rightful place atop the NL East.

"We're doing all right,'' first baseman Ryan Howard said. "Are we playing our best? No.''

That's not only very true but a scary proposition for all comers, who may have figured that this was the best time to catch the Phillies. That time may have passed now.

In a sentiment that seems to be accepted league-wide, midway through the series with the team that appears to be the biggest threat to their National League supremacy, one Cardinals player remarked that "the Phillies seem to be a pitcher short.''

Which only goes to show how quickly things can change. Within a few hours of that statement, Kyle Kendrick, at the very bottom of a Phillies rotation that isn't even at full strength, shut down the Cardinals. That came immediately after strong outings by Joe Blanton and Cole Hamels, who may be back to his 2008 postseason form, and one day before baseball's best pitcher, Roy Halladay, did on Thursday what he does better than anyone: overpower the opposition. "We've got to get our starters organized. (But) things are starting to shape up,'' Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Our pitching is definitely the key. When we get Jimmy back, we're going to score runs.''

To some degree, Manual acted like the Phillies got away with one after his finished taking the series from the Cardinals, the team Phillies people view as the main threat to dethrone them as National League champions. With a sly smile, Manuel said about the Cardinals, "They just weren't hitting.''

The Phillies' mantra seems to be: Don't try to brag before the goal's been met.

But here are some more reasons to love the Phillies:

• The bullpen isn't as nearly bad as it's been made out to be. The "two Cubans,'' as Lidge called Jose Contreras and Danys Baez, look terrific. Both hit 98 on the gun in the Cardinals series. "The power arms coming out of the pen are ridiculous,'' Lidge said.

Contreras pitched brilliantly in the Cardinals series, throwing two scoreless innings in front of his 75-year-old mother who just joined him with an escape from Cuba to see him pitch for the first time. Contreras beamed the whole series. "It's good for me,'' he said. "And she's happy, too.''

Meanwhile, Lidge is back from the ledge, just in time to replace Madson, a Lidge protege who learned a valuable lesson when he tripped on his approach to kicking that metal chair. That lesson? "You've got to know what you're up against,'' Lidge said.

The bullpen has caused agita since spring in Manuel but looks solid now because the up-and-down Lidge appears good enough to close, which Manuel said he will do, "for right now."

• The starting pitching is better. The comment from the Cardinal about the Phillies being a pitcher short is heard often throughout the league. But Blanton just got back, and Happ said he hopes to return in two weeks after feeling fine in three straight side sessions. It's true the dropoff is steep from Halladay and that Kendrick and the ageless Jamie Moyer aren't going to blow away too many folks. But it should be noted that they normally don't need shutouts to win, not with their offense.

Perhaps most importantly, Hamels looks back to his 2008 form, according to scouts who say he was throwing harder than Tim Lincecum in their matchup recently and saw him dominate for a long stretch in his next start. Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said one key for Hamels has been "creating a better angle.'' But the best change may be in Hamels' head. "There's a lot of pressure on this guy. The World Series made people think he can win every time out,'' Dubee said. Dubee didn't mention it, but Hamels may have had similar feelings which worked against him.

• Nobody is better than Halladay. Halladay is one of a kind in today's game, as a pitcher who carries the potential to complete games. Phillies great Robin Roberts, who died Thursday morning, made a point this spring to meet Halladay, who's considered a throwback for his unmatched durability. While he won't beat Roberts' record of 28 straight complete games, he at least carries the potential to give the pen some rest.

• Their core four --Rollins, Howard, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth -- are special. Werth, who had big hits against the Phillies on Thursday, has become so good that his friend and fellow Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino says he's deserving of his promotion from excellent complementary player to core. A lot of folks are figuring Werth will be gone as a free agent after the year now that $125 million has been spent on Howard. But Victorino, pointing out that Werth is the rare righty they need, not to mention a fan favorite, said, "They've got to figure it out. I hope so, anyway.''

• Their complementary players are pretty special, too. The Placido Polanco pickup is said by Phillies insiders to have pleased Manuel, a former hitting coach who became frustrated by Pedro Feliz's wasted at-bats. Polanco, who is hitting a respectable .274, is the perfect table setter for the Phillies. Victorino is the emotional leader, "the heart and soul of the team,'' in the words of one competing GM. And catcher Carlos Ruiz is an underappreciated contributor who, surprisingly, ranks second in the league in on-base percentage at .449.

• They have better depth than before. For a few years Rollins has been warning them to add a backup shortstop, and veteran journeyman Castro, a solid defender, is a nice complement.

All things considered right now, it's hard to imagine a team in the National League that's better than the Phillies.

Pedro Martinez's agent, Fern Cuza, is meeting with the Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher in the Dominican to discuss his opportunities, Cuza said. The plan is for Martinez to pitch at least as much as he did last year with the Phillies, when he didn't debut until August but wound up pitching 61.2 innings combined between the regular and postseasons.

• Folks are again talking about the alleged SI cover jinx after Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte all suffered a variety of injuries within a couple days of being featured on SI's cover. If Derek Jeter, the only completely healthy member of the Core Four, should happen to become injured, the talk will increase. It doesn't appear any of the three is seriously hurt. Rivera is ready to come back after injuring his side and Posada is expected back Friday or Saturday vs. the Red Sox. A physical issue in Pettitte's left elbow (a large gap) was detected in medical examining a decade ago, so there's been concern about him ever since, but he is expected to miss only one start after an MRI showed no structural damage in the elbow.

• Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told his Nationals.com that they are not considering hiring Bryce Harper's college coach Tim Chambers as a scout. That must represent a change in thinking since Nationals assistant GM Roy Clark was one of several people who confirmed to SI.com a few days ago that they were looking at hiring Chambers. "We're working on it,'' Clark had told SI.com. Chambers had previously worked for Clark when the latter was heading the Braves' expansive system of scouts but his attempted hiring still will be taken as a clue the Nats will select Harper with the No. 1 pick in next month's draft.

• The Red Sox and Angels entered their series after suffering sweeps, and the Angels have suffered a second one. They also suffered the indignity of ex-Angels ace John Lackey calling their approach to free agency "curious.'' Lackey signed with Boston for $82.5 million after the Angels offered him about half that on an extension. The Angels do have a different approach than most big-market teams toward free agency, but until their slow start this year, it was hard to question them too much because they just kept winning, claiming six of the past eight AL West titles.

Carlos Beltran's progress after knee surgery has been slower than hoped for. Someone close to him said he's doing "OK, not great,'' and Beltran told the New York Daily News he felt pain while testing it on the treadmill recently.

Andre Ethier, the walkoff specialist who has five game-ending home runs since the start of last year, certainly has a flair for the dramatic.

• The passing of Phillies great Robin Roberts appeared to touch everyone in the organization. The beloved Hall of Famer who won 20-plus games six straight years and led the league in complete games five straight years (he completed more than half his career starts, 305 of 609) was recalled as a kind man who loved the organization and was an expert storyteller. Jason Werth had a special connection since not only did his grandfather Ducky Schofield know Roberts but Werth's great-grandfather played semi-pro ball with Roberts when Werth's great-grandfather was 45 and Roberts was 17 in their town of Springfield, Ill. "A great man,'' Werth called Roberts. "A treasure,'' Phillies CEO Dave Montgomery said. Both characterizations fit perfectly.

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