The always plain-spoken Charlie Manuel won’t come out right out and predict that his team will become the first from the National League to win back-to-back World Series titles since the 1975-76 Reds. However, the Phillies‘ manager likes his team’s chances. “I do. Don’t you?,” he said. “We’ve got a good club and it’s only getting better. If we can get to October, I’ll stack us up against anybody and like my chances.”

It would have been harder to make that case less than two months ago. The Phillies were 39-37 on July 2 and hanging on to the National League East lead by a thread. Since then, however, they have won 35 of 51 games. They are now 74-53 and cruising to their third straight division title with a seven-game lead over the Braves in the division title.

“It took us about half of the season to get our starting pitching straightened out,” Manuel said. “Now we’re in a situation where we can put a starting pitcher out there every day who can give us a good chance to win. That makes a big difference. You can have all the offense you want-and I’m a hitting guy-and you can have a good bullpen, but if the starting pitchers aren’t keeping you in the game then you’re in big trouble. Now, we’re causing trouble for people.”

A big reason behind the stabilization of the Phillies’ starting pitching has been the emergence of left-hander J.A. Happ, who is the leading candidate to win NL Rookie of the Year. Happ has contributed 4.9 SNLVAR, which ranks 22nd in the major leagues. From among the veterans, Joe Blanton has also been solid with a 3.4 mark. They have helped make up for left-hander Cole Hamels‘ feeling a hangover from carrying the Phillies’ rotation through three rounds of post-season play last October. He pitched 262 1/3 innings in 2008, and the 25-year-old appeared to feel the effects early on this season, along with admittedly slacking off on his conditioning over the winter while enjoying his new-found fame as the World Series’ Most Valuable Player.

The Phillies have also made two high-profile additions to the rotation since the All-Star break in trading for Indians left-hander Cliff Lee and signing right-hander Pedro Martinez as a free agent. Lee has made a major difference by contributing 2.2 SNLVAR in just five starts before the Braves got to him for six runs in five innings last night. “He’s been amazing,” Manuel said of Lee. “We knew we were getting a number one-type starter when we traded for him, but he’s been unbelievable. He’s got good stuff, he really knows how to pitch, and he’s a good athlete who holds runners on, fields his position, and can swing the bat. What I like about him is nothing bothers him. A lot of guys might have put pressure on themselves coming over here, but it doesn’t faze him at all. His first game with us, he had a no-hitter going through five innings at San Francisco. Well, you know the superstition about not talking about a no-hitter, but he comes in the dugout after that fifth inning and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a no-hitter going.'”

Lee’s addition has also bolstered the Phillies’ hopes of repeating as World Series champion. “He gives us a legitimate ace-type pitcher,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for any team that has to potentially face him three times or even just twice in a seven-game series.”

The Phillies are sixth in the NL in runs allowed with an average of 4.4 a game, which has been offset by their-league leading offense that averages 5.3 runs. However, it is the bullpen that could be the Phillies’ downfall come October, especially if Manuel insists on sticking with Brad Lidge as closer. Lidge has a -2.14 WXRL, a year after leading the major leagues in that category with 7.61 mark. Manuel admits to having some concern about Lidge but also stands behind him, noting, “Don’t forget that this guy was perfect for us last year [converting each of his combined 44 save opportunities in the regular season and postseason]. We’ve won a World Series with him. I feel we can do it again with him.”

The most likely replacement will be right-hander Brett Myers, still on a rehabilitation assignment in the minor leagues while recovering from hip surgery performed in late May. He was the Phillies’ closer in 2007. Myers is downplaying his potential role as a bullpen savior. “I don’t want to start any turmoil in any part of the team,” Myers said. “I don’t want to be anything like that. I just want to help. I want to go pitch. I don’t want any controversy or stirring up stuff. That’s not what I plan on doing. If they need me to close the game, yeah, we can do that. They can pick who they want in that situation but I’m prepared to do anything they ask. I’ve closed before. It’s nothing new for me to go out and do it.”

Of course, the Phillies could also just try to outslug everyone in October with an offense led by second baseman Chase Utley (.332 EqA), first baseman Ryan Howard (.307), and Werth (.305). “The good thing about our lineup is that everyone can hit from one through eight, and they all play the game the right way,” Manuel said. “A lot of people asked me all winter and spring training if I thought our guys would lose their focus after they won the World Series. I knew they wouldn’t. They’re a good group of guys and that’s why the fans really like this team. We’ve never taken anything for granted and that’s why we’ve put ourselves in pretty good position to get back to the playoffs.”

Right-handers Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush came off the disabled list this past week to notionally bolster the Brewers‘ injury-riddled starting rotation. However, their return is too late to help the Brewers make a second consecutive trip to the playoffs after they ended a 26-year post-season drought last season by winning the NL Wild Card. The Brewers are 63-66, 12 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, and 8½ games off the pace of the Rockies, the wild-card leaders.

When Bush made his last start on June 20 against the Tigers, the Brewers were just a half-game out in the NL Central. They were still just four games behind when Suppan made his last start July 27 against the Nationals. They used three different pitches to fill in for Bush and Suppan with disastrous results. Mike Burns, Seth McClung, and Carlos Villaneuva combined for a 7.25 ERA in 15 starts, and the Brewers were 6-9 in those games.

Thus, manager Ken Macha‘s worst fear coming into the season came true following a winter in which their top two starters, CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, left as free agents. “In spring training, we realized we lacked starting pitching depth,” Macha said. “Burns either pitched pretty good or pretty bad. You have hopes if something did happen, somebody would step up. You can’t pitch people when they’re not healthy. You can’t do that.”

A number of starting pitchers were either traded or signed as contenders in July and early August, including Lee, Martinez, Jarrod Washburn, Carl Pavano, John Smoltz, and Jake Peavy. Though the Brewers did trade for relievers Claudio Vargas and David Weathers, general manager Doug Melvin was unable to add a starter. Some rumblings surfaced in early July that Melvin would pull a blockbuster for Lee or Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay, but his refusal to part third baseman Mat Gamel or shortstop Alcides Escobar, two of the Brewers’ top prospects, killed those hopes.

However, Macha said Melvin did his best to find help for the rotation. “Doug scoured the area for pitching,” Macha said. “It’s not like he just sat there and said, ‘Go ahead and fall out of this pennant race because we have pitching problems and we’re not going to try to do anything.’ That absolutely was not the case. He was very much in the hunt for a starter.”

The Angels lead the major leagues in runs scored with an average of 5.7 a game, just a year after finishing 15th with a mark of 4.7 per game. Those around the Angels agree unanimously that the addition of free-agent right fielder Bobby Abreu on the eve of spring training is the single biggest reason behind the increase of nearly one full run a game. Abreu has a .297 EqA but his biggest value is perhaps reflected in his seeing 4.15 pitches seen per plate appearances, which ranks ninth in the American League, and second on the club behind third baseman Chone Figgins (4.19). As a team, the Angels have raised their pitches seen per plate appearance to 3.88 this season from 3.65 in 2008.

“I think Bobby has had an influence on some guys, more as a mentoring tool,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Plate discipline has been a big part of our guys getting into good counts and then being productive in those counts. I think Bobby has had an influence on that. I don’t think that there’s been any drastic change in some players we’re looking at as far as them looking at Bobby and saying I want to do what he’s doing. I do think some players have become enlightened maybe about not trying to do too much with a pitch or when you get in a hitter’s count don’t get so aggressive you give the count right back to the pitcher. It’s gotten us better looks at the plate than we’ve had in a long time.”

Abreu is on the quiet side but enjoys talking hitting and has had plenty of conversations this season with teammates such as Figgins, first baseman Kendry Morales, infielder Maicer Izturis, and shortstop Erick Aybar. “We just talk about situations in games, trying to make yourself better than you are,” Abreu said. “It’s just thinking through the game instead of waiting until you’re in a situation and then reacting. They can follow that because they can see it’s working for me. Why not give it a try?”

The Pirates have the youngest teams in the major leagues after making seven trades this season. Utility infielder Ramon Vazquez and reliever Chris Bootcheck are the only players who are 30 years or older. Catcher Ryan Doumit is the only regular remaining from July, 2008.

However, the Pirates feel they took a significant step forward this past week by winning two of three in a home series against the Phillies. “We went toe-to-toe in three straight games against the world champs,” Pirates manager John Russell said. “I think it shows that what we’re doing is the right thing and we’re headed in the right direction. It was an important series for a young team to learn how to believe in itself.”

Rookie center fielder Andrew McCutchen‘s two-run home run in the series opener capped a three-run rally in the ninth that gave the Pirates a 6-4 victory after closer Matt Capps blew up in the top of the inning. Pinch-hitter Brandon Moss‘ one-out solo homer in the ninth forced extra innings in the middle game before Ryan Howard’s three-run shot in the 10th gave the Phillies a 4-1 triumph. Garrett Jones, the 28-year-old rookie sensation, then hit a two-run homer off of Happ in the eighth inning of the finale to power the Pirates to a 3-2 victory.

“This isn’t spring training where their starters play the first four innings and go home,” McCutchen said. “This is for real. They’re the world champions and they’ve been rolling. This shows we have the tools and the team to beat anybody. It’s a big confidence boost for a young team like ours.”

MLB Rumors and Rumblings:
The Marlins or the Giants appear to be the likely teams to land right-hander Brad Penny, who was released by the Red Sox. … The Yankees would prefer to re-sign Johnny Damon to a one-year contract for 2010 and allow outfield prospect Austin Jackson a second year to develop at Triple-A, meanwhile pursuing such big-name free-agent outfielders as Matt Holliday and Jason Bay in the offseason. … The chances of Astros manager Cecil Cooper getting fired seem to be growing by the day. … The Royals are looking to extend the contract of general manager Dayton Moore, who is signed through 2010. … The Cardinals plan to exercise closer Ryan Franklin‘s $2.75 million contract for next season then sign him to an extension through 2011. … The Cubs are likely to trade right fielder Milton Bradley this winter, even if they have to eat a large portion of the $21 million left on the final two years of his contract. … The White Sox are unlikely to exercise right fielder Jermaine Dye‘s $12 million option for 2010 in light of his poor second half and the recent high-priced additions of Jake Peavy and Alex Rios. … The Twins would like to add a starting pitcher before the midnight Monday deadline for acquiring players who can be part of the post-season roster, as they plan to use left-handers Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins in relief once they come off of the Disabled List. … The Dodgers would like to add a left-handed bat with power for their bench for the postseason. … The Nationals want a veteran innings-eater for their rotation in 2010 and are auditioning right-hander Livan Hernandez for the job after signing him this past week following his release by the Mets. … The Diamondbacks are leaning toward non-tendering first baseman/outfielder Conor Jackson, who has missed most of the season with Valley Fever. … The Pirates plan to give a long look to Jeff Clement at first base in September.

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

White Sox at Twins, Monday-Wednesday (August 31-September 2)
Gavin Floyd vs. Nick Blackburn, 8:10 p.m.; John Danks vs. Jeff Manship, 8:10 p.m.; Mark Buehrle vs. Brian Duensing, 1:10 p.m.

Giants at Phillies, Tuesday-Thursday (September 1-3)
Jonathan Sanchez vs. Cole Hamels, 7:05 p.m.; Tim Lincecum vs. J.A. Happ, 7:05 p.m.; Barry Zito vs. Pedro Martinez, 7:05 p.m. (MLB Network)

Red Sox at Rays, Tuesday-Thursday (September 1-3)
Jon Lester vs. Andy Sonnanstine, 7:08 p.m.; Junichi Tazawa vs. Matt Garza, 7:08 p.m. (ESPN); Josh Beckett vs. David Price, 7:08 p.m.

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Regarding the Red Sox/Rays series, Tazawa was optioned to the minors, so Beckett (Tuesday) and Buchholz (Wednesday) have each been moved up a day.