While the Nationals lost in Bryce Harper's home debut, they clung to first place thanks to the Phillies-Braves battle. If you left the Phillies for dead because the right side of their infield is on the DL and Cliff Lee, also injured, hasn’t even begun throwing, then you made a first-month mistake. On Tuesday night as they beat the Braves 4-2, Philadelphia reminded you why you shouldn’t be surprised when the Phillies come back from an early grave and eat your brai … . Well, you shouldn't be surprised when they stay alive in the so-called "Division of Death."
First, the Phillies have their set stars who aren’t missing in action. Cole Hamels ran off his fourth straight quality start of the season. He put the team in a position to win yet again, even though he was facing a Braves team averaging more than five runs per game. Even without Lee, the rest of the Phillies’ star-staffed rotation has notched 17 quality starts in 21 turns -- delivering enough ballgames that even a team with a weak offense can win.
That same rotation has had to take four “tough losses” (that’s an "L" in a quality start, per Baseball-Reference.com) because of the anemic offense. That can’t be chalked up to injuries alone: Rookie Freddy Galvis might not be ready for big league pitching while filling in for Chase Utley. But that’s just one lineup slot hampered by injury. Among the guys the Phillies are counting on, Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco both have OPS marks below .600. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino were both getting on base at less than a .300 clip before Tuesday night’s action.
That’s not just injury related, that’s a collection of slow starts. And it won’t last because all four vets are better than that, and they’re the players on the spot who will turn the Phillies offense around now, not later, once Howard and Utley return.
Sometimes an offense needs a nudge, though, and the Braves’ defense certainly obliged. History sees hits and runs, but it also recorded an error on Martin Prado's fourth-inning flub in left field when he flat out missed Ty Wigginton's two-out single through the left side, allowing Pence to follow Polanco home for a 2-0 lead.
In the eighth, with the game tied and Phillies on second and third, Jonny Venters got what he needed, striking out Polanco with a slider … that got away from Brian McCann, plating the lead run because John Mayberry Jr. was alertly coming home already. The Phillies’ fourth run was a well-placed hit: With the infield pulled around to the left side on the shift with the pull-hitting Pence at the plate, Pence responded by poking a single through that gaping hole on the right side.
Call those events situational snafus or perfect execution, either way the Phillies will take it. Those things won’t always go the Phillies’ way on any given night, of course; Prado has a strong arm in left, and if he comes up with that ball off Wigginton’s bat, Pence may not have made it home, or may have just held up. McCann isn’t among the very best receivers in the game, but he isn’t a brick wall either. After achieving rare notoriety as a set-up man Venters is going to get his man at home plate more often than not.
But as the Phillies try to crawl back up from their slow start at the plate, they won’t get all the way there on big innings and blowouts -- things this lineup may not have. They’ll need to get by with nights like Tuesday, where they can exploit the athleticism of Pence or Mayberry or Victorino. Even absent Lee, thanks to Hamels & Co., games will be in reach. They may eventually get real thunder from Utley and Howard, but in the meantime they’ll have to get by with what opportunity affords them.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.