During the first game of a day-night doubleheader against the Florida Marlins on July 30 (a game I attended), the Philadelphia Phillies traded All-Star outfielder Bobby Abreu—one of my favorite players and one of the best yet one of the most misunderstood players in the game—and starting pitcher Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees for four minor leaguers who are not likely to amount to much.

In other words, it was a salary dump, which was something Phillies general manager Pat Gillick—known for his honesty and candor—had said he would not do. In any event, a couple of nights earlier, the Phillies traded starting third baseman David Bell to Milwaukee for a suspect minor leaguer; and relief pitcher Rheal Cormier was sent to Cincinnati for another minor leaguer on July 31.

So the “fire sale” and Gillick’s comments after the Abreu/Lidle trade that he did not expect the Phils to contend again until after 2007 seemingly meant the team was giving up just not on this season but next season as well.

Well, somebody forgot to tell the 25 men still playing that they weren’t supposed to be contending again.

Instead, the Phillies have started playing their best ball of the season and have climbed right back into the thick of the National League wild card race. As of this morning, the Phillies are just 2 1/2 games behind wild card co-leaders Cincinnati and Los Angeles—and only two games out in the all-important loss column.

Now, the Phils still find themselves three games under .500 at 52-55, but the entire National League save the New York Mets completely sucks so they actually have a chance.

What is responsible for all this? Well, the pitching has been getting better except for Jon Lieber. Rookie left-hander Cole Hamels is starting to show glimpses of the future star he is projected to be. Brett Myers has been stellar despite some off-the-field problems a few weeks ago.

The Phils’ offense has also picked it up, scoring 63 runs over the last seven games.

The star of this offensive onslaught: Phillies All-Star second baseman Chase Utley (pictured above), who is currently riding a 35-game hitting streak, which ties the record for longest hitting streak by a second baseman set by Florida’s Luis Castillo a few years back. Utley is one game shy of tying the single-season franchise hit streak record set by teammate and shortstop Jimmy Rollins at the end of last season. Rollins wound up hitting safely in 38 consecutive games by getting hits in the first two games of this season.

Utley is hitting .330 this season and leads the NL in hits (144), multi-hit games (46) and runs (93).

Meanwhile, 2006 Home Run Derby king Ryan Howard continues to enjoy a tremendous sophomore season, batting .287 with 36 home runs and 94 runs batted in.

One of the great surprises and one of the great stories is 33-year-old rookie catcher/infielder Chris Coste. A journeyman minor leaguer, Coste finally made his major league debut this season. However, he went 0-for-14 and it seemed he was more story than substance. But injuries required the Phillies to give him another chance and Coste responded. This real-life Roy Hobbs is now batting .375 with four homers and 19 RBI. Even more amazing are his situational stats. With runners in scoring position, Coste is batting .542 with 13 RBI. In the same situation with two outs, he is batting .600 with five RBI.

Will the Phillies pull off one of the most improbable playoff runs ever? Chances are slim. However, if the Phillies go into Shea Stadium this weekend and take at least two of three from the NL East-leading New York Mets after a convincing sweep of the NL Central-leading Cardinals in St. Louis, I think I’ll really start to believe…again.

(Photo: Kyle Ericson/AP via MLB.com)

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