CHICAGO - Much to prove was Jonathan Papelbon's mantra early Saturday evening after the Phillies had won their second straight game over the Chicago Cubs and popped their heads above .500, a view they rarely enjoyed a year ago as they tumbled to fourth place in the National League East.
"I don't see it as this year versus last year," Papelbon said. "I just see a team that is out to prove something and I like guys and players that are out to prove something. I have a lot to prove. A lot of people in this clubhouse have something to prove and our manager has a lot to prove. So I like that makeup."
Much to improve fits just as well, especially after the sloppy way in which the Phillies finished off their season-opening, six-game road trip Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. With the opportunity to complete a three-game sweep of the lowly Cubs and sway the growing legion of skeptics in their own town, the Phillies instead headed home after playing their worst game of the young season.
The result was a lopsided 8-3 loss to the Cubs that left them with a 3-3 record and a day off to think about it after Monday's scheduled home opener at Citizens Bank Park was moved to Tuesday because of a forecast that says there is a 100 percent chance of rain.
If only we could be that certain about which direction this Phillies season is headed.
Before Sunday there were more good vibrations than bad, and they weren't entirely nullified by the horrible conclusion.
Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are simultaneously swinging the bat well at the start of a season for the first time since 2010, so there is no better sign than that for this veteran team.
"We had a chance to win more games than we did," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "We set the tone early in games for wins, jumping out ahead. Our bullpen pitched well in this series overall. There were some bright spots. You're never satisfied, but the fact that we had a chance to win more games than we did, that's a positive thing we leave with."
The Phillies had little chance after the first inning Sunday and you can blame A.J. Burnett for that. That's the guy A.J. Burnett blamed.
"I just didn't get it done, bottom line," the Phillies' $16 million free-agent addition said after walking six batters, including three in the first inning when the Cubs took a 4-0 lead. "I was pitching behind. That was embarrassing. I don't care who you are or who you play against, that's unacceptable. We have work to do."
By "we" he meant "me," but the Phillies collectively have work to do, too. A baserunning mistake by Ben Revere cost them a run in the second game of the season, a one-run loss to Texas, and Papelbon's Texas Save-Situation Massacre cost them the series finale against the Rangers.
Their first lopsided loss of the season had its share of mistakes and zero timely hitting. Revere couldn't handle a one-out line drive by Ryan Sweeney in the bottom of the sixth and that triggered another four-run inning for the Cubs.
The Phillies had a chance to escape the inning without allowing a run, but shortstop Jimmy Rollins missed an opportunity to step on second base for the final out of the inning on an Emilio Bonifacio ball that deflected to him off Burnett's glove.
"When I got the ball I was even with the bag, but I was going so fast and I saw the bag and at the same time I'm thinking I can step on the bag if I can stop," Rollins said. "But I couldn't stop. When I looked up at Bonifacio, he was maybe a step from the bag [at first]."
Everybody was safe, a run scored and when Ryan Kalish followed with a two-run double, the game and Burnett's afternoon were over.
The Phillies left Chicago with a .276 team batting average, which is third in the National League. It would be higher if any one of the four balls Howard scorched had found daylight Sunday, but he was stuck with an 0-for-5 collar and didn't want to talk about it afterward.
"Today we got a decent amount of hits, but none of them were big hits, unfortunately," Rollins said.
The Phillies had just one hit in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
And so they went home a .500 team, the universal symbol of mediocrity. That may be better than what a lot of forecasters see coming from this team, but you can be 100 percent certain that it would be a major disappointment for the front office, the manager and the players.
Rollins, for one, sees bright days ahead, starting with the team's 10-game homestand.
"Yeah, it's time to get back home," he said. "Open up, get it going there, put some wins together, get the fans back in the seats. Get it back to the baseball that we know and they know. Walking away 9-1 would be the way I'd like to do it."
That sounds good, but they'll have to play a better brand of baseball to make it a reality.