Baseball / Sports

Phillies inch closer to .500, look to build on weekend wins

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Phillies will spend Monday at Citizens Bank Park to raise money for ALS before boarding a charter flight to Miami, and Tuesday will start a telling stretch of 54 games in 55 days. This season is a quarter completed. The first 41 games, capped by an 8-3 victory Sunday over Cincinnati, offered scant clarity on this team's fate.

Signs of the same problems from the previous two seasons persisted. Any jolts of life, like the last two days in South Philadelphia, were often followed by dullness. They have a day to think about what happens next.

The Phillies are 19-22, just as they were in 2013, even with the benefit of a healthy roster this time. They must hope two wins like Saturday's and Sunday's are the sort of spark Ryne Sandberg envisioned. His offense produced 20 runs in two days. The eight games before this outburst yielded 21 runs.

The manager witnessed his lineup shake its prolonged offensive funk Saturday with a 12-run surge. His hitters responded Sunday to a quick 2-0 deficit. They supported another strong Cliff Lee outing. The bullpen held for seven outs. It was a sunny day to dream about the possibilities come summertime.

Given the lackluster play of Sandberg's team, those thoughts are reserved for optimists, a group thinned in recent years by continued mediocre baseball.

Sandberg, at least, discovered a batting order with temporary promise. Jimmy Rollins, who smashed his 46th career leadoff homer, was on base three times and twice scored while atop the lineup. Rollins batted first in each of the last two games, and it is safe to assume that is his new home.

Rollins has a .787 OPS this season, a significant improvement from his .667 clip a season ago. For one-fourth of a season, Rollins has produced at a level not achieved since his MVP season of 2007, when he collected 38 doubles, 20 triples and 30 homers with an .875 OPS.

The 35-year-old shortstop will never recapture that sort of power; his primary task now is to reach base. His current .359 on-base percentage would be a career best. That alone warrants Rollins a lengthy look atop the batting order.

Wil Nieves, Marlon Byrd and Cody Asche added homers Sunday. Asche again batted sixth behind Byrd and ahead of Domonic Brown. The third baseman's three-run shot in the seventh turned a taut game into a rout. It marked the Phillies' first four-homer game since June 22, 2013, and just the fourth such game since the start of the 2012 season. They entered the day ranked 14th in the league with 27 home runs.

Nieves batted higher than sixth for the first time in his 11-year major-league career. He drilled an 0-2 fastball, a pitch Reds lefthander Tony Cingrani regretted, for his ninth career homer. The backup catcher has provided many of the bench's few bright moments.

The Phillies mashed back-to-back homers to start a game for the first time since Sept. 9, 2004. (Rollins and Placido Polanco did it that day in Atlanta.) They permitted a first-inning run for the seventh time in eight games, but a rejuvenated lineup more than compensated.

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