YOU WON'T KNOW anything about this team for another 30 games, Charlie Manuel was saying before last night's game. And as if instructed to prove this, the Phillies went out and showed us why.
Joe Blanton was brilliant early, abysmal by the time he was removed in the New York Mets' five-run fifth inning. One day after Cole Hamels was roughed up for six runs in less than three innings, Blanton gave away a seven-run lead, bled to death by single after bloody single.
Too shocked to even boo him as he left the mound, the 45,061 sat numbed by the Mets' explosion, a sense of doom present throughout. A two-run Phillies rally that started with no one on base and two outs flipped that around in the bottom of the inning, and at least lent some hope that the 2011 offense would not be as power-dependent as 2010's was.
"Any way we can," said Ryan Howard, whose bust-it-up-the baseline infield single off the glove of Mets pitcher Blaine Boyer allowed Placido Polanco to score from second that inning. "If it's a squeeze, if it's a double, if it's a home run. Whatever it takes. I'll take it however I can get it."
One day after Howard struck out three times in a 7-1 loss, he hit a towering home run over the centerfield bushes, banged two doubles off the wall, had four hits and drove in a pair of runs. And that middle relief, such a spring-training concern, pitched two scoreless innings after the Phillies regained the lead in the fifth, allowing Ryan Madson to enter the eighth with a 10-7 lead.
In all, the Phillies drove in four runs with two outs. They advanced runners with ground balls, scored them by hitting to the right side. One day after producing just one run with seven hits, the Phillies accumulated 16 hits off five Mets pitchers.
It's a small sample, but so far they have 10 or more hits in four of the five games they've played, mocking spring-training concerns - at least for the time being. Asked if anything about the team's 4-1 start surprised him, Manuel said, "So far our offense is looking pretty good."
"I think a lot of people counted us out," Howard said.
Howard is now 11-for-21 this season, with three doubles, two mammoth home runs and eight runs batted in. The first three batters reached base five times last night, and that's with Jimmy Rollins taking the collar. Those who hit immediately behind him also reached base four times, and Ben Francisco hit his second home run to lead off the sixth inning.
"He's been so locked in," Howard said. "He's been having such good at-bats. The ball he hit tonight is a testament to that."
Francisco is 7-for-21 in the early going, with five RBI and six runs scored. Batting second these days, Jayson Werth is still looking for his first home run and first RBI as a National, although he has three doubles and has scored a pair of runs.
And yes, it's still early. And yes, that door swings both ways. We'd like to see Cole Hamels act like an ace and Blanton . . .
Well, truth is, we want to like Joe Blanton. We like the story of the overlooked pro, the guy who wasn't even his college team's ace, a humble guy with a lunch-pail mentality who, when all of his pitches are working, can baffle batters for six innings, sometimes seven, occasionally even eight.
We want Joe to be the guy he was in the first three innings for all the other innings all the time. That's what we thought $8 million a year would buy us, back when $8 million meant something.
But it's early, too early to get much of a read on these guys. The middle relievers came through and they showed some serious resilience after, in Blanton's words, "The [bleep] hit the fan."
Can it, will it continue? Is this the early forging of a 2011 personality, or simply April baseball?
"You have expect everybody to come hard every night," Howard said. "It's how you respond to that momentum shift that defines you."
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