So we close the book on the first half of the season, and the Phillies sit atop the NL East by four games. The weekend started with the Phils leading the pesky Florida Marlins by two games, but the Arizona Diamondbacks had the decency to split a four game series with the upstart Marlins - starting with a 14-7 win on Thursday - and give the Phils a chance to help themselves.

When the Phils entered this weekend series against the Pirates, I was cautiously optomistic. The Pirates are pretty poor, but they have good young pitching, and this sort of thing can sometimes derail an otherwise finely tuned Phillies machine. They seem to thrive against established pitchers (ask Johan Santana or Josh Beckett), and struggle against lesser known quantities.

Phillies 3, Pirates 2

D'Backs 8, Marlins 0

Against the Buccos though, the Phils came out and did what they needed to do. After surrendering a first inning run, Joe Blanton settled down and held the Pirates close, while the offense gave him three runs in the 3rd inning with the main blow delivered by newly minted All-Star Jayson Werth.

Blanton held the Pirates scoreless for the next 6 1/3 innings before turning it over to the 'pen. JC Romero turned in a scoreless, 13-pitch performance and then it was up to Brad Lidge to slam the door. He gave up a run to enable the Buccos to draw within a run, but then managed to get it done and earn his 18th save.

And getting back to an old stick of mine: the Phillies left four men on base. Not bad. I can live with 4 LOB.

Oh, and the Marlins were shut out that same night, falling 8-0 to the Diamondbacks. Happy to have a three-game edge in the division standings.

Phillies 8, Pirates 7

D'Backs 5, Marlins 1

Game two featured another rocky pitching performance by the Phillies ace, Cole Hamels. Yikes - five earned runs in six innings is not a pretty scene. Lucky for him that the Pirates bullpen, that had held the Phillies scoreless for 2 1/3 innings was unable to hold the lead.

Matt Stairs homered to start the 9th inning scoring (his ability to hit homers cold is amazing), and the oft-maligned hacker Ryan Howard (3-for-3 on the night) belted a 3-run homer to tie the game. It was almost inevitable when Paul Bako drove in the winning run.

It may not have been pretty, but it was a win. And the 11 LOB was a trend I was not happy to see. But...they won. And, for the second time in two did the Diamondbacks, taking the second game against Florida 5-1. Oooh - that's a real humdinger! Now we're talking - Phillies are now four games up.

Phillies 5, Pirates 2

Marlins 8, D'Backs 1

The final game was pretty much owned by two guys - J.A. Happ and Pedro Feliz. Happ is such a wonderful surprise at 6-0. It pretty much offsets Hamels' struggles, but wouldn't it be great to have them both pitching well? Who knew the pitching staff would prove the be the saving grace of the Phillies? They've pitched pretty well these past few weeks.

Pirates pitcher Virgil Vasquez took it on the chin, lasting just 1 1/3 innings, surrendering five first inning runs with the coup-de-grace coming in the form of a Feliz grand slam. And beseiged Jimmy Rollins has raised his average to .229 - not bad, considering he was teetering on the verge of dropping below .200 (he was batting .205 on July 1).

Now - the All-Star game takes center stage and the Phillies can bask in the glow of a 4-game lead in the NL East. And then things get interesting.

The Phillies head off to Florida to duke it out in a four-game set with those Pesky Marlins. It's a golden opportunity to bury their foe. They need to take at least three games to stake their claim as the class of this underwhelming division. And if they manage to take all four...well, an 8-game deficit gets harder and harder to erase as July and August wear on.

Meanwhile, The Mets head off to face the tough Atlanta Braves. After wiping the floor with the Phillies just last week, I think the Braves owe it to the Phils to at least split the series with the Mets. Assuming the Phillies win all four games, that would leave the Braves 6 games out, the Mets 6 1/2 games out and the Marlins 8 games out.

Yeah, that sounds like a good plan. Get some rest, boys - you're gonna need it. Enjoy the All-Star break, and come back refreshed and ready to roll. It's time to create some separation.

Go Phils!

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