If you ain't first, you're last: The marathon begins today

Charlie Manuel first sounded the alarm back in the second week of the season. As his offense mashed its way through its first three series, the Phillies manager continued to field questions about the potency of his offense. Each time, he did his best to inject some reality into the situation. It's early, he'd say. Every now and then, in his more exasperated moments, he would make a sarcastic crack about holding a parade right then and there.

So you couldn't blame Manuel last night when he reminded media members of their questions during those first couple of weeks. After all, the questions were suddenly reversed. This Phillies offense isn't hitting. And while others may have already started designing the 2010 National League Championship rings, Manuel knew all along that the first two weeks of the season can be a mirage, in good times and in bad.

Look ahead at the Phillies schedule and you can see why he was apprehensive.

There is no doubt this offense will score runs. They are too good to keep playing the way they have, averaging three runs per game over their last 10.

But they are also staring down a brutal stretch of the schedule. The Phillies' next 48 games are murderous. On the back end, they have 12 games against American League powerhouses New York, Boston and Minnesota.

But the front end is just as tough.

Here are the pitchers the Phillies will likely face in their next 11 games:

  • Tim Lincecum
  • Jonathon Niese
  • Mike Pelfrey
  • Johan Santana
  • Adam Wainwright
  • Brad Penny
  • Kyle Lohse
  • Chris Carpenter
  • Tim Hudson
  • Derek Lowe
  • Jair Jurrjens

Lincecum is 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA. And he is Lincecum.

Next come the Mets and Cardinals, who rank 2nd and 3rd in the National League in ERA. Then the Braves, who have posted a 3.35 ERA in their last 12 games and would be among the league leaders if not for the 17 runs they allowed against the Padres earlier this month.

Niese is a young lefty the Phillies have never seen before, which has often been a tough combination for them, and he has allowed one earned run in his last two starts.

You have to figure Pelfrey can't keep up his current pace -- 4-0, 0.69 ERA -- but he has faced the Phillies eight times in the last two seasons and has held them under four earned runs in all but two of them. The good news? He is facing Roy Halladay.

The Mets have won five of Santana's eight starts against the Phillies since he joined the team. He'll pitch Sunday against Jamie Moyer.

Next comes the vaunted Cardinals rotation. Wainwright was a Cy Young contender last season. The good news? The Phillies scored seven runs in six innings against him last season.

Penny is off to a sizzling start. Even more bad news? He pitched eight scoreless innings against them last season.

Lohse allowed nine earned runs in 8.1 innings against the Phillies last season. But he is followed by Carpenter, another 2009 Cy Young contender.

Hudson has held the Phillies to five earned runs in 13 innings in his last two starts against them, including two in six innings last week.

And then comes Jurrjens, who held them to four earned runs in 26.2 innings last season.

All that leads up to a three-game series in Colorado, where you can bet Ubaldo Jimenez will make an appearance.

Here are the ERAs of the Phillies next four opponents in their last 12 games:

Mets last 12: 2.31
Cards last 12: 2.56
Braves last 12: 3.35
Rockies last 12: 3.87
Phillies last 12: 4.54

The good news is that Joe Blanton should be back in the rotation next Monday against the Cardinals.

The bad news is that Jimmy Rollins will almost certainly miss the next three series.

And we haven't even mentioned the fact that the Phillies fell out of first place tonight for the first time since last May.

The last time they entered a series against the Mets trailing the Mets in the standings was Sept. 5, 2008.

Back then, they were just beginning a come-from-behind win of the NL East that would lead to their World Series victory.

Now, they are a marked team, as this series against the Giants has indicated. The Phillies are now a measuring stick for everybody else.

The sky is not falling. The Phillies still have the best roster in the National League. This could be a stretch where they establish once and for all their status as the Team to Beat this season. But it could also be a long month-and-a-half.

The key players in the immediate future?

Cole Hamels - If ever there was a time the Phillies need their young lefthander to step up, it is now. He seems to be on the doorstep. His arm strength is so much better now than it was last season. His cutter has the makings of a dangerous weapon. But as he showed against the Diamondbacks last week, he is still searching. He didn't throw his change-up much at all against Arizona. It takes time for a young pitcher like him to learn how to incorporate a new pitch into his repertoire -- not just how to throw it, but when to throw it, how it complements his other pitches. The Phillies would love to see him put it all together starting tomorrow.

Shane Victorino - He has shown in the past that he can get hot in a hurry. Keep in mind that he is still in the beginning of his third season as an everyday player. Like Hamels, now would be a great time to find the groove.

Raul Ibanez - With Rollins in the line-up, the Phillies could afford to have Ibanez play a complementary role. He has struggled to find his stroke, but he is a smart hitter who has drawn a lot of walks and, like tonight, driven in runners in situations. But for the Phillies to thrive with Rollins out, they need somebody to take some heat off of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth. Victorino could be that guy. Ibanez could too. Together, they could eliminate a lot of the trepidation about the next few weeks.

Brad Lidge - All signs are that he will be back with the team once the homestand begins. The old recipe of Blanton allowing three or four runs in six or seven innings before giving the game to Ryan Madson and Lidge could solve a lot of problems. Lidge struck out four in two scoreless innings at Reading tonight. Word is he looks a lot more like the pitcher of '08 than the one of '09. But a strong start will be important for him. And for the Phillies.

This morning will be the first time in 135 games that the Phillies will wake up in second place.

With Hamels on the mound facing Lincecum, and Brad Lidge a few days away from returning, and an off day on Thursday before the start of a long but challenging homestand, it has the chance to be a very interesting day.