By DAN GELSTON, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia Phillies are mighty proud of their run of five straight NL East championships.
So don't expect a new slogan on the cover of the game program:
"The Phillies: Best Last-Place Team in Baseball!"
Slowly, the Phillies are finding their winning ways in the most competitive division in baseball.
Roy Halladay pitched the Phillies past the Chicago Cubs 8-7 on Thursday night for their fifth straight win. The Phillies have won six of seven and are over .500 for the first time since an Opening day victory as they head into a three-game weekend series against the Boston Red Sox.
What seemed during hot-stove season as a potential World Series showdown is instead a battle between two teams looking to get out of the cellar.
The Phillies could escape last place first. They are 20-19 thanks to the recent hot streak, which is good enough to move them four games behind division-leading Atlanta. The only last-place team in baseball with a winning record, the Phillies are stuck behind Washington, New York and Miami.
Five-time All-Star second baseman Chase Utley has yet to take a cut for the Phillies. Same with 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard. Cliff Lee, a 17-game winner last season, is winless. Starting pitcher Vance Worley is on the DL with right elbow inflammation. Jim Thome is out with back problems.
Oh, and Halladay's win was his first in a month.
"It took us awhile to get back to .500," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Now, we have to stay there and move on."
Lee will win a game, of course. Plenty of them. Halladay will get on roll because that's what the two-time Cy Young Award winner always does.
It's why the Phillies believe this unfamiliar place in the standings is just a pit stop.
Utley and Howard's returns are more in doubt.
Utley (knees) fielded grounders for the first time with the Phillies before Wednesday night's game. Howard, who injured his left Achilles tendon on the final swing of 2011, has made nice progress and started some light running. There is no timetable for a return.
So the Phillies wait.
They've passed the time with a recent offensive surge that has rest of the National League wondering if the Phillies have burst out of their season-long slumber for good. This Phillies rank among the top five in the National League this month with a .285 average, 17 home runs and 80 RBIs.
Carlos Ruiz has morphed into a mini-Howard to carry the Phillies.
Long a fan favorite in Philadelphia, the catcher had his sixth career four-hit game and drove in three runs against the Cubs on Thursday. Known as Chooch, Ruiz is having a May to remember, batting .429 with 17 RBIs in 15 games.
"He's the best catcher in the National League and we've said that for years," Halladay said. "Unfortunately, you've got to hit to get that notoriety and he's doing that now. Hopefully, people take notice."
Hard not to notice, especially without the stars in the lineup to overshadow him.
Just a little more than week ago, Manuel was so frustrated with Philadelphia's erratic start that he called a team meeting and gave his players an earful after they were swept in a three-game series by the Mets that dropped them four games under .500.
"I know we can get better, that we can play better baseball," Manuel said.
They went out and fattened their record against some of the weakest teams in the league. They took two of three from San Diego, then swept brief two-game series against the Houston Astros and Cubs to enter the Red Sox series on a hot streak.
The Red Sox are 18-20 and 6½ games behind first-place Baltimore in the AL East. They'll see a familiar face in closer in Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a $50 million, four-year contract with the Phillies in November, the richest deal ever for a reliever. He was a four-time All-Star in seven seasons with the Red Sox, and helped them win the 2007 World Series title.
Papelbon has 10 saves and would love to add to that total this weekend.
Last place or not in May, the Phillies still believe he'll be adding to that total in October.