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Phillies show plenty of spark

It is always good to end things on a positive note, and as the Phillies headed into the all-star break this week, things could not have ended much better.

With their 14-run outburst against the second-place Atlanta Braves, paired with yet another Cole Hamels pitching gem, the Phillies made quite a statement heading into the unofficial halfway point of the season.

Here they sit, their sights on yet another deep run into the postseason, with a 57–34 record . . . the best record in all of baseball.

Now, it’s hard to say that a team with this kind of record really had only a “good” first half. Gut instinct would tell you they had a great first half, but in all honesty, the Phillies showed some pretty sizable holes through their first 91 games.

Everyone knows that their starting pitching, while it has endured some health woes, has been spectacular all season. That’s why they had three of their starting pitchers in this week’s all-star game; Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have done more than what was expected of them at the start of the season.

But their dominance has helped neutralize an offensive deficiency that has troubled the team all season.

True, the Phils spent the first few months without field captain Chase Utley, but Shane Victorino is the only Phillies player in the top 50 for batting average in all of baseball.

That’s a problem . . . a very big problem.

While Victorino boasts a .303 batting average, the team as a whole is hitting just .250. Their “prolific offense,” which was supposed to be a lethal home-run producer, has hit just 78 long balls to this point. That’s good enough to rank 20th out of the 30 major-league teams.

Similarly, the rise of young arms like Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes has been exciting to watch, but they have helped conceal another deficiency. Look beyond Bastardo and Stutes and the reality is that the bullpen is basically in shambles.

With guys like Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras on the disabled list, coupled with the disastrous play of ex-Phils reliever J.C. Romero and the invisibility of injured closer Brad Lidge, the bullpen options can be shaky if a starter fails to go seven innings.

The same can be said for the bench guys they have — aside from Wilson Valdez. More guys have been pressed into service because of injuries to starters like Victorino and Placido Polanco, but there really isn’t a pinch-hitting home-run threat on the bench as there was when Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs were at their best.

But everything is not all doom and gloom, either. There is still plenty to be excited about.

Because of injuries, a few guys have had a chance to show their worth to the Phillies in the second half of the season. Biggest in my mind is what John Mayberry Jr. has done since his latest call-up from the minors on July 5. In just 19 at-bats, he has shown an ability to hit major-league pitching for power, with two home runs, four doubles and seven runs batted in. Plus he’s righthanded at the plate, which is exactly what the Phillies are looking to add to their lineup.

Another potential difference-maker could be 32-year-old lefthander Juan Perez. With the team’s recent release of Romero, the Phillies need a second lefty in the bullpen to supplement Bastardo in late-game situations. In just four appearances so far, lasting 3.1 total innings, Perez has yet to give up a run — or even a hit. More intriguingly, in two innings of work against the Braves over the weekend, he struck out five of the six batters he faced.

That’s a pretty good statement by Perez.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out. It begins this weekend against the New York Mets. ••

Columnist Matt Godfrey can be reached at mgodfrey@bsmphilly.com

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