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May 18, 2016

Phillies eke out another win, zero in on first place

No one should be looking at baseball standings in mid-May.

If you’re a fan of a team that’s expected to play into October, it’s far too early to make anything out of the season’s first seven weeks. Even the powerhouse Chicago Cubs hold just a 6 1/2 game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

If you’re a fan of a team that’s expected to compete for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, it’s also premature to look at standings a week before Memorial Day weekend and believe that what you see now will match what you see as the marathon baseball season gets to Labor Day. 

With all of that said, the Phillies have played more than a quarter of the games on the 2016 schedule and, following a 4-2 victory over the Miami Marlins on Wednesday afternoon, have put themselves into a position to be in deadlock with the Washington Nationals atop the National League East standings when they return to Citizens Bank Park on Friday, following a day off Thursday.

(That scenario would unfold at the top of the crowded NL East if Washington and New York split the two games they will play tonight and Thursday. The Phils are currently percentage points behind Washington.)

“It’s crazy, but, why not?” Mackanin said of the possibility of his team, projected by every prognosticator for 90 or more losses, being in first place this deep into the season. “We’re playing well. We’re pitching well. We’re playing good defense. We’re getting just enough runs to win. I’ll take it every time.”

The Why Not Phillies bounced back from a pair of losses to begin the week to take two straight and collect their fourth straight series victory. Dating back to April 22, the Phillies have taken seven of their last eight series.

During that month-long run, they’ve seen every team in their division except for the Mets. And in their only appearance at Citi Field this season, the Phils rebounded from a season-opening four-game losing streak by taking two out of three against the defending National League Champions.

The question nearly everyone has asked in the last two weeks about the Phillies, a team that has a -28 run differential after 41 games, is whether their current winning percentage (.585) is sustainable. 

But, at least through a quarter of their games, the Phils have been more than competitive thanks to a pitching staff with a 3.83 ERA (sixth best in the NL). Their starting rotation has a 3.74 ERA (ninth best in MLB) with a 1.14 WHIP (third in MLB) and a 3.87 K-BB ratio (third in MLB).

“It’s all about the pitching,” Mackanin said after watching Jeremy Hellickson retire 11 straight Marlins hitters following a somewhat troublesome first inning. “This Miami team has a real good lineup. So do the Mets, so does Washington. and we’ve held our own against all of those teams. There’s no reason for me to believe we can’t continue to do that. 

“Now, once again, we want more offense. Hopefully, little by little, the guys that we have here will improve. And if we make any additions, that will help. But that’s the only way I look at it. I think it is.”

The Phillies win on Wednesday, which was spurred by a three-run third inning highlighted by a RBI double from Andres Blanco and a two-run single by Cameron Rupp, was their 16th win decided by two runs or fewer this season.

The Phillies have won by two runs or fewer in 11 of their last 12 victories.

“If this is the way it’s going to be the rest of the year, my hair is going to start turning gray,” the silver-haired Mackanin said. “But, that’s fine with me.”

 • The Phillies are looking for more offense and Tyler Goeddel is helping out in that department.

Like Tommy Joseph a night earlier, Goeddel was frozen out upon returning back to the dugout after hitting his first career home run.

"I was staring at everyone because I was like, 'You're doing the same thing as you did yesterday, I know what you're doing,'" Goeddel said with a laugh. "But it was awesome to be a part of that."

• Ryan Howard returned to the lineup after a two-day break (when the Phillies were matched up against left-handed starting pitchers). The rest didn’t seem to help his sluggish bat: Howard finished the afternoon 0-for-4 with a strikeout. He never hit a ball out of the infield on Wednesday afternoon.

Howard is hitting .168 on the season, which ranks 179th out of the 179 major league players with at least 125 plate appearances this season. Since hitting a walk-off home run against the Cleveland Indians on April 29, Howard is 4-for-43 (.093) with 17 strikeouts in his last 15 games.

Recently promoted first baseman Tommy Joseph had as many hits on Tuesday night (three) as Howard has in the last two weeks. It’ll be interesting to see how manager Pete Mackanin writes out his lineup as the Atlanta Braves have three right-handers scheduled: Matt Wisler on Friday, Williams Perez on Saturday, and Aaron Blair on Sunday.

The Phillies, meanwhile, will send three of their second-year starters to the mound against Atlanta following Thursday’s off day:

 • Giancarlo Stanton has done his share of damage against the Phillies over the years. He entered Wednesday with 18 home runs in 75 career games against the Phillies, and a more than respectable .839 OPS. In 38 career games at Citizens Bank Park, Stanton had 10 home runs.

But part of the reason the Phillies are 4-2 against Miami this season is that they’ve been able to make the Marlins most formidable hitter look like Michael Martinez (or, almost). Stanton went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Wednesday.

Stanton is 1-for-18 with 12 strikeouts, three walks and one home run against the Phillies this season. In this most recent three-game series, the Marlins slugger went 0-for-10 with nine strikeouts. Nine. In 10 at-bats. 

"Just keep the ball down," Hellickson said of the Phils' gameplan against Stanton. "He’s probably the best power hitter we have in the game. So you want to keep it down and mix it up. We did a nice job of commanding the bottom of the zone."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21