It is autumn, and October is on the immediate horizon. Questions remain before the Division Series: Is it Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing in Games 2 and 3 against the Yankees or Rays? Which two teams get into the NLDS out of the Giants, Padres, Braves and Rockies? And of all years, will this be the sixth time since 1990 that Bobby Cox finishes out of the postseason?At this point, with San Diego at San Francisco and Philadelphia at Atlanta on the final weekend still to provide the final seeding of the playoffs, there seems to be only one truth that remains self-evident: the Phillies are the team this October.
"I never believed that teams could turn it on and turn it off," said one scout advancing the Phillies. "But they seem to be that way. Now, granted, as Jimmy Rollins comes back this final week, they have had many of their very good players all come back late in the season. Brad Lidge has made some mechanical adjustments that seem to have brought him around."But they are playing better than they have all season, and they have the best front-three starters in the game. Want a ring? Beat [Roy] Halladay, [Roy] Oswalt and [Cole] Hamels and shut down Chase Utley. Sounds simple enough, in theory, but I'm not sure anyone can do it." The Phillies are really good, they are very tough, they have players who understand the nuances of winning, like Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Utley, they have a manager in Charlie Manuel who knows his players and when to push. This is a team that was carefully constructed. Ownership brought in the best baseball CEO in modern history, Pat Gillick, who put the organization parts in place, then turned over a world champion to Ruben Amaro, who in turn has fully comprehended that this team had a window of opportunity and he has done all he could to ensure that the view from that window is grandiose -- hence Cliff Lee then Halladay then Oswalt. Hence Polanco. They went into this second-to-last weekend 18-3 in September, 44-15 since July 21. They've won 10 series in a row. Utley, who many suspect is far from 100 percent physically (but would never concede), has reached base in 22 straight games, and in a couple of instances cast an eye at teammates who weren't taking batting practice seriously. Oh yes, and soon they'll have their motor running when Rollins returns. But the fact remains that the Halladay deal was the most important trade of the offseason, the Oswalt deal was the most important during the season, and Hamels' return to health is one of the most significant physical comebacks and developments of the second half. "I watched them this week and could only think 'they are really good,'" said another scout. Indeed, we look at every other playoff contender and worry about aspects of their teams: the Rays' starting pitchers approaching a 5.50 ERA over the past 26 games, plus their falling slugging percentage coupled with league-leading strikeouts as they prepare for playoff pitching; the Yankees' starters after CC Sabathia, not to mention age; the health of Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Justin Morneau; the Rangers becoming too right-handed without a healthy Josh Hamilton; as well as the flaws of the Giants, Padres, Reds and Braves. But with the Phillies, the questions -- What happens if Rollins doesn't hit? What happens if Raul Ibanez hits as he did in May? -- seem shouted down by the H2O troika. The team is 37-15 since Oswalt arrived. The threesome is 13-0 in September.
"Halladay is as good as anyone on the planet, and right now he's their third best starter," said one scout.
Oswalt is 7-1 with a 1.76 ERA in 11 starts for the Phillies, who are 10-1 in those games.Whereas last September Hamels' arm speed was down, as were his fastball and, of course, changeup, this week he touched 95 mph, had a great change, showed a good curveball and was getting in on right-handed hitters better than ever with both his fastball and new-and-improved cutter. Better even than 2008, when he won four games in the postseason and was the World Series MVP. When they won that 2008 Series, it had all the spark of a flea market, with the rain causing loss of interest in the media to some extent. So, in many ways, this team that has so much personality, so much fire and so much life, deserves to get back in the spotlight, and for fans across the nation to appreciate who and what this team has been. This is their window, their chance at being museum pieces, and they might never have had that opportunity if owner Dave Montgomery hadn't allowed Amaro to bring Halladay and Oswalt to the right place at the right time.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.