Phillies Season on the Brink

Cole Hamels pitches tonight in a must-win game for the Phillies against the Nationals. (David Maialetti/Daily News)

The Phillies could lose this thing in the next six days if they aren't careful.

It is not still early. Sitting two games behind the Mets with 24 games to play is not dire but it is damn close. That they are better off than they were last September, when they came from seven games behind the Mets with 17 games to play and overtook them on the final day of the season, ceases to be a comfort at a certain point (like, uh, now). Halley's Comet does not come every year.

The Phils have two games left this week at Washington and three over the weekend in New York. If they were to lose four out of five, they would be just about finished; yes, that quickly. If they were to lose three out of five, they would be setting themselves up for a win-at-all-costs final couple of weeks.  As it is, the Mets are on a pace to win 90 games. The Phils would need to go 15-9 (.625 baseball) for a tie. Now, maybe the Mets will collapse again and the Phils will need less. But the Phillies used up a lot of maybes last summer. History suggests there is a limit.

A lot of the season sits right here, then -- today, tomorrow, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It means a different approach -- specifically, how manager Charlie Manuel employs his pitching staff.

That they need to skip Kyle Kendrick's next start -- on Sunday in New York -- and have Cole Hamels pitch in his place now goes without saying. Kendrick is somewhere between scuffling and imploding and Hamels is the ace and it just needs to happen. There is no way around it at this point.

But it is more than that. Manuel needs to shorten his bullpen, too -- which means more J.C. Romero, more Chad Durbin, more Brad Lidge (even for four-out saves), and less of everybody else.

Remember how last September went. They had to baby Tom Gordon all summer -- on the disabled list, off the disabled list, never quite right, always careful about back-to-back appearances and such. But when it came to the end, they rode him. In their last 16 games in 2007, Gordon pitched 13 times. They would not have won the division without him -- something the knuckleheads who booed him this summer must have missed between beer runs. When it mattered, really mattered, he just took the ball (and Romero did, too). But you obviously can't do that all year.  The risks are enormous.

I was asking Manuel about all of this last week in the Phillies' dugout.  Recounting the whole Gordon  philosophy,  Manuel nodded his head and talked about this year and said, "There will come a time." But he said it wasn't yet.

When he was talking, it was about a week ago -- that is to say, more than 20 percent of the remaining games have evaporated between now and then. Back then, he acknowledged,  there would come a time "where you want to have your best guys out there."

Well, here we are.