The Phillies aren't setting the world ablaze the way the Padres and Yankees have done after their lousy Aprils. However, after taking two out of three games in a pair of series against division leaders - the Cardinals and Orioles - the Phillies were gradually creeping their way back into the National League East race.
While winning four of six from the teams with baseball's second and third best records was encouraging, the true test for the Phillies came this week with a pair of road series against the first-place Marlins and second-place Braves.
Losing their first two games in Florida has put a damper on the trip and made the four remaining games much more urgent. Two series wins against their divisional foes would have put the Phils back in business. Two series losses would place them in serious trouble.
No one knows how crucial this stretch is not only for the team, but also his future, more than closer Billy Wagner. It was Wagner who gave up a game-tying ninth inning homerun to Damian Easley Tuesday night, allowing the Marlins to complete their comeback from a 3-0 deficit. It was just the second blown save of the season for Wager. The veteran left-hander is in the final year of his contract, and with several teams enduring either injuries or inefficiency from their ninth-inning specialists, Wagner could become a hot commodity if the Phillies find themselves trailing the division leaders by double digits three or four weeks from now.
"I've been around long enough to know there's a possibility (of a trade)," Wagner said. "There's no getting around that. All I can do for now is worry about getting people out."
"The way I look at it is that I'm doing the best I can for this team."
General manager Ed Wade said that he hadn't received any calls concerning Wagner when the Phillies were struggling earlier this month, but he has little doubt that there are several teams out there with interest.
"The other teams know Billy's situation," Wade said. "But I think it is preconceived that we aren't going to be interested in doing something like that (at this time). There's no question that if we got in that position, we would start getting those calls."
"If we're going to win this, we're going to do it with the guy who we wish we had as our closer all of last season."
Wagner was irritated after giving up some key hits with his slider in recent games. Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein hit his first homerun of the season on a Wagner slider, and Reggie Sanders, who was 0-for-18 with 12 K's against the southpaw in his career entering Thursday, lined a double off a Wagner slider.
"I'm done with that pitch," Wagner said. "I'm so annoyed."
Meanwhile, Jon Lieber's specialty has been an unyielding determination to not allow walks to beat him.
He won 14 games in five months with the Yankees last season by following that game plan. He won his first four starts with the Phillies this season, walking just two batters in 21 2/3 innings.
However, the bases on balls have been sprouting on his line score of late, and the wins have become fewer and farther between.
Lieber handed out four walks to the Cardinals, and it wasn't a coincidence that he allowed a season-high seven runs (six earned) in an 8-4 loss to the red birds. Although the veteran right-hander avoided trouble after walking two hitters in the first inning, he was burned badly by the two free passes he handed out in the third.
After walking just 18 batters in 176 2/3 innings last season, Lieber had walked 15 batters in his last five starts coming into Monday night's game against the Marlins. After going four years without walking four batters in a game, he has done so twice in the last 23 days.
It's a disturbing trend, one that is disturbing Lieber enough to send him zipping to his car before reporters could ask him about the loss of control.
That left it up to pitching coach Rich Dubee to answer the questions.
"He seems out of whack right now," Dubee said. "His rhythm hasn't been there, and he's a guy who needs his command."
"You'll have to ask him (if he's upset). I'm sure he's not happy about it, that's for sure."
The good news is that he didn't issue a walk through six innings of work Monday night, but did give up six hits and four earned runs, suffering the loss and falling to 5-4 on the season.
Randy Wolf will start Wednesday and look to salvage a game for the Phillies against the Marlins.
Wolf isn't showing the occasionally dominating stuff that he had during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, but he has gotten into a pretty consistent groove in May that is giving the Phillies an opportunity to win his starts. He has gone six innings in two starts this month, seven innings in the other two. He has given up two runs in three of the starts, three runs in the other.
"I'd rather be the guy who's consistently good than great once in a while," said Wolf, who gave up two runs (one earned) in six innings Friday. "The biggest compliment I can get is for my teammates to come to the ballpark and think, 'We have a good shot of winning today. Wolfie's pitching and he'll probably give up two runs, so all we need is three to win the game.'"