<
>

These Phillies just getting started

PHILADELPHIA -- The manager of the team with the best record in baseball rubbed the white hair on top of his head and made a confession. Charlie Manuel admitted on Wednesday that his team is better than he sometimes makes it out to be. And there have been times, he said, when he's had to take a step back, ignore the slumps and the injuries and the zeroes on the scoreboard, and remind himself of that.

"Sure, I've had to do that," said the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. "Without a doubt, I have."

But the real truth, the manager said, is that he thinks the Phillies can be better in the second half of this fascinating season than they've been in the first half. And that's a statement you won't hear much from the manager of the winningest team in North America.

Manuel uttered those words before his team went out and beat the Boston Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday night, behind three pitchers who mysteriously forgot to hold a news conference the day they arrived in spring training: Vance Worley, Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo.

And when the final out of that game had finished settling into the glove of Placido Polanco, the Phillies were 51-30 at the halfway pole. Catchy number, that 51. That's four more wins than any other team in baseball. It's the third-most wins, after 81 games, of any Phillies team since 1900. And it puts these Phillies on a pace to do something only two teams in franchise history have ever done -- win 100 games.

But it isn't really what they've done that's the story here. It's how they've done it. They were built to win, all right -- just not like this. They weren't built to survive putting three closers and two starting pitchers on the disabled list. They weren't built to lose Chase Utley for 50 games, or to run their projected everyday lineup out there for precisely five games in the entire first half.

And they definitely weren't built to find themselves dueling the Red Sox on ESPN, hoping Vance Worley could get the ball to two guys named Stutes and Bastardo.

But this is what makes sports the most fabulous reality show ever invented. If you want to be great, you have to be able to throw away the blueprints and make it up as you go along. And that's what this Phillies team, more than any other Charlie Manuel has managed, has done best.

"I heard Jimmy Rollins say the other day, 'We always find a way,'" Manuel said. "And that's what it's all about. It's about finding ways."

The team with the best record in baseball is on pace to score just 654 runs. Not so long ago, a lineup with many of these same names just missed scoring 900. The team with the best record in baseball is also on pace to hit a mere 134 home runs. A mere two years ago, a bunch of guys wearing this same uniform hit 224 homers.

But this Phillies team has won eight more games halfway through its season than any of the four division champs that preceded it. And that isn't just because guys named Halladay, Hamels and Lee are now on the payroll. It's because this is a group of men who have learned to focus only on one thing -- winning. So as much as they've worked hard to publicly downplay the significance of three June games with the mighty Red Sox, these are men who love the big stage, the big game -- and the big show of an ESPN broadcast.

"The truth is, we've got competitive guys here," said Raul Ibanez, who drove in both of the Phillies' runs off John Lackey -- with a second-inning single and a seventh-inning homer, his first home run in 91 at-bats. "And they do get up for these games."

But the culture they've created over the last five seasons is now so ingrained, it doesn't just flow through the blood of the household names who have shown up in so many October box scores. The Vance Worleys and Antonio Bastardos sense it, too, and know exactly what they're here for.

"When I first got here [in 2000]," said Rollins on Wednesday, "it was just about trying to get to the big leagues. Now winning gets passed down. And there's no question that that's what's asked of them. Now these guys know that if they don't perform, they'll get sent down."

No one can quite define how winning gets passed down from one baseball generation to the next. But "I think it's unspoken first," Rollins said. "You see it, and you want to be a part of it. And when you continue to win, it feeds down."

It has now been 11 years since Rollins first arrived in September of 2000, when he joined the death march to another 97-loss season. The next spring, he reminisced (not so fondly), he remembers sitting back and listening to a first-day-of-spring-training pep talk that made him wonder what kind of franchise he'd gotten himself into.

"When I got here, the talk in spring training was not winning the division," he said. "It was, 'We want everyone to say at least they run the bases hard.' The second time I heard that, I was like, 'What? We were a good baserunning team? That's really what they want people to say?'"

But a decade later, this is a franchise with much bigger plans. And that, said the manager, is why he keeps raising the bar, higher and higher. There have been times over the past few weeks when Charlie Manuel has voiced so many concerns -- about his offense, about his bullpen, about his hitters' failure to get good pitches to hit -- that it was hard to tell his grumbling from the 24/7 nervous breakdowns on the sports talk shows. But there's a difference, Manuel said, when he's the one painting those pictures.

"I'm always looking to get better," he said. "Where I'm at, I'll never be satisfied. If we're hitting .300, I'll want us to hit .330. If we're hitting 250 home runs, I'll want to hit 300. I'm always wanting to get better where I'm at."

Well, his bosses may not get him the bat he's campaigned for, or even another late-inning bullpen arm. But at least he's already made progress on one front this week: For the first time in his seven seasons managing the Phillies, his team has finally won a series against the Red Sox, by beating Josh Beckett on Tuesday and then John Lackey on Wednesday. Amazingly, the only run the Red Sox have scored in the entire series was driven in by a pitcher (Lackey).

Next up on Thursday in the finale of this series -- and the first game of their second half -- the Phillies will do what they do best, handing the baseball to another ace in Cole Hamels, and hoping that they remember to score a couple of runs for him.

They're built to keep on doing that for the next three months. If those three months go anything like the first three months, then they get to find out exactly how good they can be. And how good, you may be wondering, is that?

"I don't know," Rollins said. "You can't determine that in wins and losses."

It was the voice of the Phillies' way of saying that it isn't 100 wins this team is chasing. Instead, it's a chance to play the games that those 100 wins just earn a team the right to play. And if the Phillies get to play -- and win -- those games in October, "we can be pretty good," Rollins said.

"Then," he said, "we can do something that, hopefully, you can talk about one day."

But those first 51 wins, and their two wins in this little "World Series of June" extravaganza this week, don't guarantee them anything more than the right to dream those dreams. Now, the test for the Phillies -- and for all those teams chasing them -- really begins.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: