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Resurgent Phillies turn heads of baseball insiders as NL favorite

The Rockies, star-crossed for most of the year, now are red-hot. The Reds remain young, exciting and surprisingly consistent. The Giants have a great one-two pitching combination, a nice thing going and a relatively favorable finishing schedule. The Padres still possess plenty of pitching, if not the momentum. And the Braves have a nice balanced team for Bobby Cox's farewell tour.

But of all the National League contenders, it is the resurgent two-time defending champion Phillies, winners of 12 of their past 13 series, who are truly intriguing baseball insiders now. After all they've been through, including the 17 player stays on the disabled list and assorted surprise hitting slumps, they are perceived by many around baseball now as the National League favorite.

This Philly team, which is 11-3 in September and overtook the Braves in the East, could make it three straight World Series appearances. It is creating such a stir partly because of its revival but mostly because of its vaunted top trio in the rotation of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Oswalt makes a nice replacement for ex-Phillie Cliff Lee, who was traded away last winter.

"If I was a real smart guy we'd have all four of 'em,'' Phillies GM Ruben Amaro said, good-naturedly.

Another positive sign: Amaro's to the point where he can joke about the trade of Lee that created more second guessing than just about any move made this year. Amaro said again by phone that there wasn't a way to fit both Halladay and Lee at the time, so he made the choice for the pitcher who was willing to sign up for three more seasons, which was Halladay, who also happened to be the pitcher the Phillies liked above all others in baseball.

But by finding room a few months later to add Oswalt, who unlike the free-agent-to-be Lee, is under contract for next year as well, and making that trade with Astros GM Ed Wade, his old boss in Philadelphia, Amaro has set the Phillies up nicely for the finish.

"I think they have the best team. There's not a better team in the National League,'' one National League scout said. "Each of their first three starters has been a No. 1. There may be a dozen legit No. 1s in baseball, and they have three. Philly is really the first team I've seen with three No. 1s like that. Hamels, the World Series MVP (in 2008), is your No. 3 starter? You've got to be kidding me.'''

Hamels had thrown 25 straight scoreless innings -- a streak snapped Tuesday -- by featuring a 94-mph fastball and his usual superb changeup. Amaro said, "I can't say enough about Cole Hamels. A lot would say Cole Hamels has been our MVP this year. He's been so consistent, he just doesn't have the wins to show for it.'' (He is 11-10 after beating the Marlins on Tuesday.)

Oswalt has been his usual second-half dynamo after J.A. Happ and prospects went to Houston in a deal that was very wise for both teams (the Astros needed to move on from their old guard and also get younger). Oswalt has been close to unhittable since coming to Philly and has a 6-1 record, 1.98 ERA and 0.93 WHIP for them even after being roughed up in his debut.

"He's been a great addition,'' Amaro said. "We gave up a lot. J.A. Happ is a great pitcher. But for now and the foreseeable future, we have a very strong top of the rotation.''

Talk of the Phillies being the best team in the NL is not something Amaro chose to repeat. What he did say was, "I think we're in decent position. Guys have to continue to battle and swing the bats well.''

Beyond all the injuries, or in fact partly because of them, the Phillies' offense has been the one major issue for them this year (though they are hitting .321 in the last eight games). It has underperformed expectations for much of the year. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have all missed time.

"It's been pretty well documented we didn't have our lineup for most of the year,'' Amaro said. "We didn't have a real good flow to things.''

While Rollins is still nursing a hamstring injury, the rest are back. And more importantly, the Phillies don't necessarily need to put up big offensive numbers with that kind of pitching. "All they need is one or two runs,'' the scouted pointed out.

The Phillies are a team of stars, of course. But their complementary players have been productive.

Of unheralded catcher Carlos Ruiz, the scout said, "That (guy) can play. He's a good defensive catcher who gets big hits.''

Of Placido Polanco, the scout said, "I thought he was a mistake. But he doesn't miss a ball he gets to, he's one of the toughest outs around, he hits the ball to all fields, and he knows how to play the game.''

Even the Phillies' extra players, like shortstop Wilson Valdez, who's been dynamic defensively in Rollins' stead, have made a difference, too.

The bullpen has been an issue with the Phillies over the last couple years. But as the scout pointed out, "Each of their top three pitchers will go seven innings. If you get seven, you don't need that deep of a bullpen.''

• New Padres owner Jeff Moorad still hasn't gotten his money out of the Diamondbacks, sources tell SI.com. There isn't resolution over the money, and it could go to arbitration or litigation, as the Diamondbacks say he's owed about $16 million while he Moorad sees the value of his stake, which is in a blind trust, as about three times that, about $45 million. The final figure will depend on the value of the franchise. Commissioner Bud Selig could decide the matter.

• Arizona interim GM Jerry DiPoto and Kevin Towers appear to be the favorites for the D-backs GM job. Arizona has compiled a nice list that also includes De Jon Watson and Logan White of the rival Dodgers and Eddie Bane of the Angels. The Yankees declined Arizona's request to interview their scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer, whose three-year contract runs through 2011. It's Yankee policy not to give permission for executives with multi-year contracts. So obviously, he wouldn't have the chance to go to the Mets as GM, either, if their GM comes open, as expected.

• Most baseball people don't believe Joe Torre will stay with the Dodgers, who have become a soap opera under the McCourts, as nicely depicted in Lee Jenkins' recent article in SI. Insiders suggest Don Mattingly won't get the call, either. Tim Wallach remains a favorite for the job. Although, if Tommy Lasorda has his say, Bobby Valentine would be the choice. Does Lasorda have the power? "Depends on the day of the week,'' one source said.

Bob Melvin will be interviewed for the Cubs managerial job. Melvin does not appear to be a leading candidate for the Mets' job now, although one source said it could be because he may not be interested in it.

• Of course Aramis Ramirez will pick up his $14.6 million option (which also will pay him $2 million additionally when the Cubs presumably buy him out in 2012 rather than exercise a $16 million option of their own). Ramirez has had a nice second half, but his overall numbers guarantee he wouldn't get a salary anything like $14.6 million on the open market.

Adrian Beltre, meanwhile, will turn down the $5 million 2011 option he holds. Red Sox people say they wouldn't be surprised if Beltre tries to duplicate the $64 million, five-year contract he received with Seattle after his big year in Los Angeles in 2004 (but they also say that while they know he's due a raise from the $10 million he made this year, they won't offer close to that $64 million deal).

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