THE PHILLIES ARE surprisingly interesting these days, particularly as they begin a stretch of games that began Monday night in which they will play against the National League's top three teams in 13 of 16 games.
Domonic Brown is again a person of interest, his at-bats a reason to suspend the eat-athon these games have become, his throws from the outfield capable of creating a PT Barnum collective gasp. Thirty-two-year-old Erik Kratz, who hit another home run Monday night and threw out another runner from his knees, is just such a feel-good success story.
Then there is Chase Utley and his rejuvenated knees. The professionalism and youthful enthusiasm of 35-year-old Juan Pierre. Ryan Howard still runs the bases as if on ice, but that towering blast deep into the rightfield bleachers in Monday night's 12-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds was another comet of hope, no?
What remains unnerving, of course, is that icky feeling that the best days of Roy Halladay and Tuesday night's starter, Cliff Lee, are behind them.
"You can write all you want about it, speculate all you want, and I can, too," Brian Schneider said before Halladay took the mound Monday night. "But no one knows, except him."
Actually, I'm not sure he knows. Not yet anyway. There have been hopeful innings and hopeful starts since his return from a strained right latissimus dorsi - a sore shoulder - that altered his arm slot. But amid them there also have been concerns about velocity, and strike-two pitches, and, well, innings like the first and fifth Monday night. Which, for much of this uneven and unsettling season, would have been plenty good enough to beat the Phillies.
But Kratz had a big night and Brown had a big hit and Howard was so imposing in his first two at-bats that he was intentionally walked for his third. Even John Mayberry hit a double and a bomb, making it feel like last August. For a night anyway.
Then again, this was not the Roy Halladay of last August, or even earlier this August. Or any previous August of recent memory. After stringing together three hopeful starts, Halladay allowed the first four Reds to reach base. And if not for some bad baserunning and even worse base coaching he would have been in a larger hole than 2-0 when the first inning ended. But the Phils gave one of those runs back with a vaudeville rundown in the fifth inning, when the top of the Reds order again slapped Doc around to regain a lead they had just lost when Kratz hit his seventh home run.
In fact, Doc's first three times through the top four of the Reds order read like this: Seven hits (two doubles) and one walk over 12 plate appearances.
At some point, baseball tests your intelligence. Monday night, Charlie Manuel asserted that Roy Oswalt's rapid decline as an elite pitcher has been at least in part due to a reluctance or inability to morph from power pitcher to surgeon.
Halladay made that transition long ago. He did it early, as a struggling pitcher in the Blue Jays system, and when he came to the Phillies before the 2010 season there was already talk of him adding pitches and changing speeds more. Monday night, Halladay threaded a 92 mph fastball past Brandon Phillips and followed it with a 77 mph curveball that had the Reds' second baseman so far out ahead of it he might have fallen on his face had he not made contact.
In fact, there was enough there in his seven-inning, 97-pitch, 10-hits-allowed performance to buy into what he said afterward, that he is past the testing point.
"I want to win, I want to compete," he said. "For me, it's a normal season this point on.
"I know we talked about doing some different things mechanically and all that, but I feel like at this point I want to go out and compete and give us a chance to win. I don't want to go out there and treat it like spring training. I want to go out and win games and get us deep . . .
"To me, it's now down to mechanics."
You want to believe that. Just as you want to believe that Utley's knees have passed some test by now, that Howard's blast is an indication the window has not yet closed on this era, that Brown will still be that can't-miss that he was supposed to be before he went AWOL.
Mayberry had three hits Monday night. Whoa. It's what still makes this season interesting.
Contact Sam Donnellon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon.