The longtime kings of the National League East may be getting ready to make their move in one of baseball’s most competitive divisions — and just in the nick of time to preserve their home sellout streak.
The Philadelphia Phillies, the five-time defending NL East champions, fell into what amounts to a tie for last place with an 11-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday, June 27 at Citizens Bank Park. But the injury-wracked Phillies (36-41) are finally on their way to becoming whole again thanks to the return of All-Star second baseman Chase Utley (chronic knee woes), who made his season debut Wednesday and hit a homer in his first at-bat.
And with first baseman Ryan Howard (out all season after tearing his Achilles last October) beginning a rehab assignment tonight, June 28, and Cy Young Award-winning ace Roy Halladay (who hasn’t pitched since May 27 due to a sore shoulder) also expected to return in the next few weeks, the deficits the Phillies face both in the wild card race (where they are 6 ½ games behind second-place Atlanta) and the NL East (where the Washington Nationals lead the Phillies by nine games) no longer seem so insurmountable.
Kevin White of Philadelphia’s Wanamaker Ticket Agency is confident the perception that the Phillies are in the thick of the race should keep the team’s impressive sellout streak at Citizens Bank Park — at 260 games and counting after Wednesday night — going through the rest of the summer.
“Especially with Chase Utley coming back [Wednesday], there’s been a demand for the next couple games because of that,” White told TicketNews. “Now everything’s lining up with Halladay coming back after the All-Star Break and potentially Howard. Everything’s lining up for that streak to continue. I don’t see anything that will change that.”
Despite their struggles this season, the Phillies led Major League Baseball in average attendance (at 44,780 per game) through Tuesday, June 26 at 43,647-seat Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies and Red Sox are the only two teams playing to more than 100 percent capacity.
The Phillies’ sellout streak began during the 2009 season, the year after they won the franchise’s second World Series crown and two years after they began perhaps the most impressive run in team history by charging back from a seven-game deficit with just 17 to play and winning the NL East over the stumbling New York Mets on the final day of the 2007 campaign.
That stunning comeback and the Phillies’ championship pedigree as well as the luxury of an extra wild card spot gives White and other Phillies fans — a bunch not often known for its patience — confidence the Phillies can surge past teams such as the Nationals, who have never made the playoffs, the Mets and the Braves, who missed the playoffs last season after a shocking September collapse of their own.
“At the end of the season they have the pieces in place to do it,” White said. “The extra wild card spot could favor us. Washington is a young team, so if they get some pressure on them down the stretch — the Phillies have [comeback] before. The Braves or the Mets, they’ve folded down the stretch [before].
“It’s a little too early to be concerned — obviously with all the injuries they’ve had, it’s definitely affected them, but I think they’ll be fine,” White said. “[There’s] just so much time and with so many games left. It’s the luxury of having a 162-game season.”