For Phillies, 'it's not over yet'

PHILADELPHIA -- It was Fan Appreciation Day at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday, and Philadelphia favorites Ryan Howard and Chase Utley took the field with microphones in hand before the first pitch to let the crowd know how appreciative they truly were.

Geez, let's see. You have two polite, earnest, reasonably-priced stars -- one black, one white -- reaching out on behalf of an organization in search of its first playoff appearance in 13 years. Think Phillies general manager Pat Gillick envisioned this moment when he sent Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees in a white-flag trade seven weeks ago?

Let's pause while the marketing people give thanks.

"Ryan is a super hero," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, "and Chase is a nice-looking young man, if you ask all the ladies. That's one way to connect with the fans. You get the girls to come, and they have to bring their boyfriends, dads and grandpops."

Utley, whose low-key demeanor in interviews suggests he would rather be off doing soft toss than speaking to nearly 45,000 people, got a rise out of the crowd when he proclaimed that the Phillies' wild-card run has been fun, and, "It's not over yet."

If Nomar Garciaparra didn't keep coming up with new and inventive ways to keep Los Angeles in the NL wild-card race, it might be.

While Trevor Hoffman celebrates the career saves record in San Diego and the Dodgers continue to feed off Nomar, the Phillies are doing their part to ensure that three teams will be in the mix for the National League's final two postseason berths. They've won four straight series, and now they've killed off the Florida Marlins with a three-game sweep at home.

Sunday's 10-7 victory featured most of the essential elements. Phillies starter Jamie Moyer summoned all his veteran wiles to survive a terrible first inning, and Philadelphia hit five home runs off Marlins starter Scott Olsen and two relievers.

Two homers came off the bat of Utley, who is back in a groove at the optimum time. Utley went through a six-week funk that dropped his average from .330 to .299, and his problems appeared to be related to fatigue stemming from the fact that he'd missed a mere two games all season.

But Utley is hitting .538 (14-for-26) on the Phillies' current homestand, and he's back in sync mechanically. According to manager Charlie Manuel, his hot streak is a product of better balance, hitting off his back foot rather than lunging off the front foot, and getting his hands through the hitting zone more quickly.

Sunday's biggest hit, a three-run homer, came from catcher Chris Coste, who has been tremendously productive for the Phillies in a supporting role. Coste, a product of Concordia College, began his professional career with the Brandon Grey Owls of the independent Frontier League in 1995. He spent four more seasons plugging away for Fargo in the Northern League before a 6-year climb through the minors.

Jim Morris, aka "The Rookie," doesn't have a whole lot on this guy in the heartwarming department.

"When I first got called up, I said I didn't know if I'll be here three days or three years," Coste said. "I'll probably appreciate this more when the season is over. It's not really stressful -- just intense. If we can finish on a good note, I'm sure I'll be sitting on my couch back in North Dakota happier than I am right now."

Meanwhile, the Howard 60-homer watch remains stuck at 58. Howard, who contributed a double and a single against Florida on Sunday, has two homers and 19 walks in his last 14 games, and it's now readily apparent that opponents won't give in to him at crunch time.

But good teams find a way. If it's not Utley or Howard providing the big hit, it's Abraham Nunez making another acrobatic play at third base. The Phillies, who always seems to anticipate how things might go wrong, are suddenly envisioning things going right.

"I'd like to have a two-game lead with one game to play. Then I won't have to stay up late and watch the games on the West Coast."
-- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel

"I'd like to have a two-game lead with one game to play," Manuel said, when asked to assess the final week. "Then I won't have to stay up late and watch the games on the West Coast."

The Phillies' upcoming schedule is reasonable. Roger Clemens pitched Sunday in Houston, so when the Astros come to Philadelphia for a makeup game Monday, they'll send rookie Matt Albers to the mound against Randy Wolf.

Then it's on to Washington to play the Nationals, who just lost Nick Johnson for the season with a broken leg. And the Phillies will close it out against the Marlins, who are 5-11 against Philadelphia this year and have to be distracted by all the speculation and bad news swirling around manager Joe Girardi.

Since July 26 the Phillies are 38-20, the second-best record in baseball in that span behind Oakland. Philadelphia fans aren't ready to give up their hearts to this team yet, but they're tempted.

Rollins, for example, takes note when he's standing at his shortstop position and those impromptu "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants no longer get any traction.

"There might be five guys in the stands trying to get it going, but people just aren't joining in now," Rollins said. "Sometimes people even boo. That's a good thing. You can't expect the Eagles chants to go away completely, though. That's a Philly tradition."

With their slugging superhero first baseman and lady-killing second baseman leading the way, the Phillies are intent on starting a new tradition. We'll see how the story turns out this week.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.