The remarkable month of June enjoyed by the Phillies' starting pitchers came to a sharp, unpleasant end in the fourth inning Thursday when Cole Hamels took a line drive off the meaty part of his glove hand, just between the thumb and the wrist.

Hamels had the presence of mind to reach down, pick up the baseball, and retire Adrian Gonzalez of the Red Sox at first base, and, after taking a few minutes to compose himself, to elicit a ground ball from Dustin Pedroia to end the inning.

That is what the Phils starters did in June. They got outs regardless of whatever else was going on, although it wasn't usually as dramatic as a laser that peels the glove from your hand. Usually, it was merely needing to get outs because otherwise the Phillies would have to score runs themselves.

In June, the starting pitchers had a 1.96 earned-run average in 27 games, 17 of which were wins. The offense, which did show occasional signs of life, was held to two runs or fewer in seven of the 10 losses. It has gone like that, and it is the kind of thing that can wear on a team, but the daily pressure hasn't worn down the starters yet.

"I'm tired of hearing everybody talk about how many runs we don't score," Ryan Howard said after Thursday's 5-2 loss to Boston. "We score enough runs to win games and that's what's important."

No, the pitching staff keeps the other team from scoring enough runs to win games, and that's what's been more important. Maybe it is just a matter of perspective, and Howard is right as far as it goes. But the Phillies are eighth in the National League for runs scored, and have the best record in baseball. It ain't the offense winning the games, and if they are tired of hearing about it, each guy will get about four chances every night to change that.

As for Hamels, the assumption is that the swelling in his hand will recede, the pain will subside, and he will take his regular start on Tuesday in Florida. Maybe his mood will improve, too. He chafed after the game when a TV cameraman filmed him putting his shirt on at his locker. Hamels declined to speak to reporters after that, depriving the Philadelphia area of his thoughts on the injury. Just so you don't feel cheated, here is a pretty fair guess: "OUCH!"

With Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton out, the starting staff's success has been even more remarkable as the Phillies have patched the rotation together with Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick. It would be nice if Hamels doesn't further complicate things after suffering what the Phillies are officially labeling "a contusion," the fancy word for. . .

"I call it a bruise," said manager Charlie Manuel. Of course, he does.

If it is nothing more, then July might turn out just as well as June (although the Phils are winless now in the second half of the season).

"We don't need to lose any pitchers," Manuel said.

One reason is that there is a dark side to the bullpen, even though the pen has overachieved as a group. The dark side was on display Thursday against the Red Sox when David Herndon and Drew Carpenter took over the pitcher's duel with Jon Lester and shot blanks. Scott Mathieson's ninth inning was no beauty, either, but he escaped without allowing a run.

So, the formula is clear. The starting pitchers have to be great (and fortunately they are), the bullpen has to pitch within a comfort zone, and the offense has to bestir itself every other game. Should that last part ever improve, they really might have something here, not just a measly, old 102-win season.

"I look for our lineup to hit better," Manuel said. "I still think we can play better and I think in the second half, we will play better. But things have been good for us. I like being in first place."

It is the place to be, now and particularly later. The Red Sox think so, too, but might have to settle for a side door to the playoffs. Once there, it's not impossible the Sox and the Phillies could move inexorably to a World Series showdown, and that the series this week was a preview.

If the starters are as good in October as they were in June, that could turn out well for the Phils. It is a lot to ask of a starting staff, but no more than has been asked already. They seem to be able to handle anything, aside from the stray line drive off the glove hand. And even then, like a faucet that drips a little after being turned off, the pitcher will still get a couple of more outs.

The pitchers get outs, a good thing in baseball, and very good for this particular team, because, too often so far, the hitters get the same thing.

Contact columnist Bob Ford

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