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May 20, 2019

Kevin Cooney: We're about to learn what the 2019 Phillies are really made of

It had the ear pulsating sound of a thunderclap — loud, clear and rumbling through a canyon. You didn’t really have to look at that moment, you just had to hear it — solid contact on the sweet spot of a bat, a rifle shot that signaled that Bryce Harper’s month-long slump was officially history long before the towering shot rattled around the bullpen in right center.

“Each day, all you do is try to get better,” Harper said after his two-run homer was the deciding moment in the Phillies’ 7-5, series-sweeping win over the Colorado Rockies Sunday at Citizens Bank Park. “You keep working and keep going. Every day, it could be different.”

Every day in baseball is different because the challenge alters in some way. And now, for the Phillies, that challenge level gets kicked up to its highest point on the schedule with 13 of the next 16 games on the road against the teams that are the National League’s measuring sticks in the Cubs, Brewers and Dodgers.

“We know that we have a lot of work to do,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “We know this is going to be a difficult road trip. We have to make plays and we have to execute the fundamentals. If we make plays and we swing the bat like our lineup is capable of doing, we’re going to be just fine.”

Noticed we said the National League and not the NL East. The division has been reduced to the Phillies, Braves and everyone else’s roaring five-alarm dumpster fire.

By the time you pick up the breakfast bagel on Monday morning, Mickey Callaway could be packing his Citi Field office and spared the chore of managing the dysfunctional Mets. Davey Martinez could be ordering from UHaul in the near future as well when the beat-up, underachieving Nationals finally put another manager out of his misery. And the Marlins are a glorified Triple-A franchise.

But this isn’t about just winning the National League East anymore. If the Phillies can’t do that right now with the Braves entering Memorial Day week as the only legitimate threat, the disappointment — barring massive injuries— would be great and justified. No, the picture should be better and by the time the first week in June is finished, you should know what it will take to make the Phillies a legitimate World Series contender.

Chicago and Milwaukee are the first two spots on this journey — the top two teams in the best division in baseball in the National League Central. After a quick three game laundry drop at Citizens Bank Park against the Cardinals, there’s a six-game trip to two-time National League champion and NL West leading Los Angeles and the Manny Machado-led San Diego Padres.

“We’re excited,” Harper said. “It’s always exciting to go into Chicago and play at Wrigley Field,” Harper said. “We’ve just got to go out and play our game.”

These are statement series. After years of being an also-ran in their division and an afterthought in the big picture stage of World Series contention, moments like this cast a dye that carries through an entire summer and can echo into October.

Series like these show the flaws that pop-up down the road. Everyone thinks that the Phillies are going to need starting pitching and bullpen reinforcements by the time the season ends. You find out for certain in spots like the next two weeks.

Because after that, the opportunities become fewer and further between. The Phillies will be done with the Brewers next Sunday for the season. The series against the Cardinals will be the final meeting between the two this season. The Dodgers and Cubs come to South Philly in the middle of July and August, respectively.

Yes, you can overvalue specific moments on a schedule. Even if Philadelphia goes undefeated in this stretch, it doesn’t guarantee anything in October.

However, this is the first real chance to see how this unit — together — can handle the pressure of high-focused series. It is really the first time dating back to the end of the 2011 season where you could legitimately look at a Phillies series against a legitimate contender and wonder if this could be a potential playoff matchup. (If you believed that last summer, you were lying to yourself.)

By the time this stretch of the schedule is finished, you will know if the Phillies are a legitimate contender for something bigger this year than just a division title. And like Harper’s home run on Sunday, you won’t have to watch it.

You’ll just hear the thunderclap and know.