At one time, the Phillies knew this all too well. Every season they’d stumble out of the gate with a poor April, and every season they’d come up just short of a playoff birth.
In 2004, the Phillies went 10-11 in April and finished the year 86-76 in second place, 10 games behind the Braves and 6 games out of a Wild Card spot.
In 2005, the Phillies went 10-14 in April and finished the year 88-74 in second place, 2 games behind the Braves and just 1 game out of a Wild Card spot.
In 2006, the Phillies went 10-14 in April again and finished the year 85-77 in second place, 12 games behind the Mets and 3 games out of a Wild Card spot.
Three poor Aprils, three years the Phillies finished the season on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
In 2007, the Phillies had yet another poor April, going 11-14. However, that time they were finally able to overcome their yearly slow start, winning their first NL East crown since 1993. They finished 89-73 after an immortal comeback against the Mets, winning the division on the final day of the season. It was a miracle, thanks mainly to a 17-11 September and an epic collapse by New York.
In 2008, the worm finally turned. The Phils, for the first time five years, finished April with a winning record, going 15-13 (one of those losses came in March). Everyone knows what happened next.
In 2009, their April record was 11-9. In 2010, it was 12-10. And last year, on their way to 102 victories, they went 18-8.
With the exception of 2007, a losing April has meant a lonely October. And coming into Sunday’s series finale against the Padres, the Phillies are 7-8, 4 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the NL East.
It goes without saying that the season is still very, very young. And on April 22nd, there are still plenty of games left in the month for the Phils to get back on track.
Still, given the absences of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee going on the disabled list, and the utter lack of production by the Phillies offense, it’s possible the Phils are about to suffer their first losing April since 2007.
Now, does a losing April guarantee the Phils will miss the playoffs? Of course not. Last year, the Detroit Tigers won the NL Central after a 12-14 April and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West after an 11-15 opening month. But it’s no coincidence that of the five division titles in a row the Phillies have won, they’ve had a winning April in four of them.
Getting off to a slow start puts a team behind the eight ball early. It forces a team to play catch-up. Some teams play better that way. In 2011, the Phils had their best April since this run began and coasted to a division title. They were then ousted in five games by a team that had to scratch and claw their way into the postseason the last day.
However, the 2012 schedule gave the Phillies a nice break early. From the beginning of the season through May 17, the Phils were only scheduled to play three teams with winning records in 2011. Things get much tougher as the weather gets warmer. So, getting off to a slow start this year means burning games against teams that are supposedly inferior to the Phils. They would then have to make up for those lost wins against much tougher competition.
Of course, the hope is that Utley and Howard come back, Lee returns from the DL just fine, and the rest of the starting rotation stays healthy. That could go a long way toward the Phils piling up some more wins against that tougher competition over the last four months. And, with two wild cards in each division now, there are more playoff spots up for grabs.
Still, a stronger April means a stronger chance of making the playoffs. For the Phils to pull off a winning opening month, the bats are going to have to do a whole lot more than they’re currently doing.