PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Charlie Manuel scoffed every time someone mentioned the Philadelphia Phillies and wild card in the same breath.
When others thought the Phillies may have to settle for a wild-card spot this season, their skipper never wavered. He insisted his team would never concede the division until it ran out of games.
Here they are now sitting atop the NL East standings with 21 games left. The Phillies have erased a seven-game deficit and have a one-game lead over the Atlanta Braves, who lost 11-4 to St. Louis on Thursday night.
Just as he cautioned that the race wasn't over when the Phillies were trailing Atlanta by a big margin on July 22, Manuel isn't ready to start setting up his formidable postseason rotation until they've clinched.
"We haven't made the playoffs yet," Manuel said. "We definitely want to win our division and we'd like to have home-field advantage. Our ultimate goal is to get to the World Series, but first we've got to get in."
The Phillies' pursuit of a fourth straight division title and third consecutive NL championship has been a struggle mainly because they've had to overcome numerous injuries. They've also had major problems on offense with several players producing below their usual standards. Part of that inconsistency can be blamed on so many guys being out of the lineup.
Six of Philadelphia's eight regulars have spent time on the disabled list, including former MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. Five-time All-Star Chase Utley was sidelined for a significant stretch, and Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz also missed time.
Polanco said Thursday he is playing with a small break in his left elbow, but is postponing surgery until after the season because of the pennant race.
Rollins, a three-time All-Star shortstop, had two stints on the DL because of a calf injury and left Wednesday night's game with tightness in his right hamstring. He's played in just 82 games, and is day to day heading into a weekend series at the New York Mets.
Utley missed 43 games because of a thumb injury, Howard missed 16 with an ankle sprain, and closer Brad Lidge was on the DL twice and currently has a sore elbow. The Phillies have missed a total of 511 man games to injury, according to STATS LLC. Overall, they've had 17 players out.
During a nearly two-week stretch in August, Howard, Utley and Victorino were absent. Still, the Phillies found ways to win. They're 33-14 since opening the second half with six losses in seven games.
"You have to attribute that to the guys we have on the roster and the guys we had available," Manuel said. "They stepped up and did the job when called upon. The guys we had that filled in for the injured players got big hits and made big plays in the right moment and they definitely played a big part in where we're at."
The key reason for Philadelphia's success has been pitching, especially their top three starters.
Roy Halladay has lived up to enormous expectations. He's 17-10 with a 2.36 ERA and eight complete games, including a perfect game against Florida on May 29. Cole Hamels has been outstanding despite a 10-10 record. The 2008 World Series MVP has a 3.06 ERA and hasn't allowed a run in his last 25 innings. Roy Oswalt, acquired from Houston before the trade deadline, is 5-1 with a 2.30 ERA in eight starts for the Phillies.
If the Phillies hang onto first place or even if they have to sneak into the playoffs as the wild-card winner, they'll be tough to beat because the Halladay-Hamels-Oswalt trio might be the best threesome in the majors.
"I compare it to '04 and '05 with Roger (Clemens) and Andy (Pettitte)," Oswalt said of his days with Houston. "It seems like it pushes you more when you have guys go out there and throw seven (innings) every time out. It's kind of an in-house competition to push each other and see how good each other can be."