THIRTY-THREE games in 31 days.
In another time, with another aspiring Phillies team, this would be a recipe for panic, for painful reminiscing, for ultimately a lot of second-guessing.
But for an 83-46 team looking to stay interested, sharp and competitive?
Any adversity that lies with such an unyielding schedule should be welcomed.
Potential postseason pinch-hitters will get more at-bats. Back-of-the-rotation starters like Roy Oswalt, Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick will get steady work. There will be ample opportunity for platoons in leftfield, to get Brad Lidge more work and maybe Michael Schwimer, too, even for one last look at Domonic Brown to see if he might get hot just in time for the playoffs.
Yes, 33 in 31 is a dangerous ratio, even for a team as deep as the Phillies. They have a few old and oft-injured position players. The three arms at the top of the rotation have logged some serious innings. The surprise-but-suspect contributors in this season's bullpen might already be wearing down. David Herndon is hot, Michael Stutes is not. A month ago or so, it was the reverse. What's up with Ryan Madson? Is Antonio Bastardo showing some wear?
Will the extra workload over the next month bring clarity to their roles?
These are answers you need, and the sooner the better. For a team with a healthy lead and a gaudy record, the Phillies have an inordinate amount of uncertainties. Is Lidge on the postseason roster or not? Who would you rather have close, Bastardo or Madson? Do you still trust Stutes in the seventh?
Of those 33 games remaining, 10 will be played against potential playoff foes Milwaukee and Atlanta. But from Sept. 12 through 25, when the Phillies will play 16 games in 14 days, all will be against teams out of the playoff hunt, teams likely to be auditioning minor league prospects.
Such games have been dangerous traps for the Phillies in the past, but that was before the full assembly of this dream-team starting staff. In this stretch are six games against Houston and New York, two teams diminished by trade-deadline deals and injuries. The Reds, with whom they open a four-game set tonight, could be considered in that grouping, although any lineup that still includes Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips is hard to call diminished.
Bottom line is, this is not an imposing task. Consider the remaining schedule of the Yankees, who play a total of 15 games against teams they could meet in the playoffs, including six against their AL East rivals, the Red Sox. Some of the young Mets, Astros and Cardinals will be seeing Cole Hamels' changeup for the first time, Cliff Lee's cutter for the first time, Roy Halladay's complete buffet.
Tell me . . . Who should have the advantage?
Hurricane Irene has also backlogged the Braves, who have their own set of circumstances. Their linchpin once again seems to be 39-year-old Chipper Jones, who's hitting over .400 since his latest return from the disabled list. The Giants have their share of banged-up old guys, too. The Braves' pitching depth took a hit over the weekend when they learned that starter Tommy Hanson, who struggled mightily after a great first half, has a slight tear in his rotator cuff. And while much has been made of the innings accumulated by the Phillies' top three starters, the 177 innings that 36-year-old Tim Hudson has logged might prove more significant.
Given this, and the back-and-forth struggles of Arizona and San Francisco in the West, it will be interesting to see how the East rivals approach the glut of games in September. Does Chase Utley get rested more? Jones? How hard will each team push once they are both assured playoff spots? How much risk?
Thirty-three games in 31 days? For a team this deep, with just enough uncertainty, it's almost a gift. So are the seven straight games they play against the Braves and Brewers from Sept. 5-11 - a great chance to measure themselves against the best, to see how some youngsters perform, maybe settle on some roles.
It should keep them interested and interesting until the end.
And if the Phillies don't fulfill their October destiny?
Well, they won't be able to blame it on rust.
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