By Joe Giglio

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The 2014 Philadelphia Phillies don’t have to play perfect baseball to stay on the outskirts of the National League postseason chase, but capitalizing on every small opportunity is imperative for a decent season at Citizens Bank Park.

It’s that, not the awful start to the home schedule, bullpen issues or poor defense, that makes Philadelphia’s 3-6 start so difficult to endure. Realistically, nine games is too small of a sample size to derive meaningful conclusions about any team in any season.

First baseman Ryan Howard was likely thinking that way when he told the media that early-season struggles shouldn’t lead to widespread panic.

“In all actuality, I believe we’ve played really well this year,” Howard said. “I disagree with everyone else. Our record doesn’t necessarily reflect that right now but we’ve played very well. You guys are trying to start a panic attack early. If you want to panic, then go ahead and panic, but don’t bring it around here.”

Exactly how well the Phillies have played is a matter of opinion. The 3-6 record and -11 run differential suggests that Howard isn’t watching the same game as the rest of us, but he’s free to dismiss numbers and stats on the basis of a few bad games.

Regardless, damage has already been done to the 2014 Phillies season. Although the 162-game schedule of a baseball season isn’t dissected and broken down like the 16-game slate of the NFL, it was instructive to look at the teams and situations the Phillies had on deck for early April.

When spring training ended, 12 games were on the horizon with Texas (without their top two starters), Chicago (with their most promising players still in the minor leagues), Milwaukee (coming off a 74-88 season) and Miami (improved, but likely a year away from relevance).

Even without Cole Hamels, Freddy Galvis or Mike Adams, a 7-5 or 8-4 start could have calmed nerves in Philadelphia and buoyed the collective spirit in a Phillies clubhouse that hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011. Now, that idea is gone and could be shattered if the Marlins come to town and take two of three over the weekend.

There’s little evidence that points to a hot start meaning anything more than a good streak in July or August, but a case could have been made that this particular Phillies team needed a good start more than any team in the sport.

Howard can look at the season as a whole, throw out a few bad games and still feel good about running a marathon through September, but it doesn’t erase how poorly the Phillies stumbled out of the box in April.

As the weeks go on, the schedule will tighten up to include Atlanta, Washington and Los Angeles. In theory, the Phillies could turn the tables with a healthy Hamels, Adams and returning Darin Ruf. If Chase Utley continues to hit at a blistering clip, Jake Diekman flashes wicked stuff and Roberto Hernandez misses bats, fans may soon forget a 3-6 start to the season.

While that would confirm Howard’s point, it’s more likely that we look back on the bad start, lament winnable games, bad defense and bullpen management. If the Phillies play better, a summer-long chase to escape sixth or seventh place in the wild card race could commence.

Don’t be surprised if the team looks back on the first two weeks of the season as a missed opportunity.

Joe Giglio is a host on WIP and WFAN, and covers MLB as a Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports. Catch Joe’s next show on WIP Saturday night at 10 p.m.

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