Many snickered. Others criticized. Few outside the locker room believed.
Hey, J-Roll, it took 160 games, but the Phillies finally are the team to beat in the NL East.
"It feels like spring training," Rollins said with a smile.
Desperate to end a 14-year playoff drought, the Phillies began the weekend tied with the Mets for the division lead. Free-falling New York dropped one game behind with a 7-4 loss to Florida, and the out-of-town scoreboard was quick to show every Marlins run, drawing raucous cheers from a sellout crowd.
Plenty stuck around to watch at a bar inside Citizens Bank Park and their roar echoed throughout the ballpark when the final out was recorded at Shea Stadium.
The Phillies' magic number to clinch the East is two.
"You don't have nothing until you have it," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Do we smell it? Of course we smell it, and we want it."
Making his third start since missing one month because of a strained elbow, Hamels (15-5) shut down the Nationals with a combination of an overpowering fastball and a nasty curve mixed in with his trademark changeup. He allowed six hits and walked one.
The All-Star lefty struck 10 of 13 batters at one point and hardly broke a sweat.
Clay Condrey finished the six-hitter for Philadelphia's fifth shutout.
"At this point of the season, it's key to go out and have your best game ever," Hamels said.
Rollins gave Hamels all the runs he would need with a two-run single in the fifth off Tim Redding (3-6). Howard crushed a two-run shot to left-center for insurance in the seventh.
After falling short in the final weekend the last two seasons, the Phillies could be heading to the playoffs for the first time since winning the pennant in 1993.
And they're doing it in improbable fashion.
The Phillies were seven games behind the Mets after losing to Colorado on Sept. 12, and hadn't spent a day in first place until tying New York on Thursday night. While the Mets have collapsed, Philadelphia has won 12 of 15.
No major-league team has failed to finish in first after having at least a seven-game lead with 17 to play. If the Mets become the first team to blow a lead that big, it could finally take the '64 Phils off the hook for their infamous collapse.
Those Phillies had a 6½-game lead with 12 to play, only to lose 10 straight and finish tied for second place behind St. Louis.
This resilient group has overcome a 4-11 start and a slew of injuries to capture the hearts of a championship-starved city that hasn't celebrated a title since the NBA's 76ers won it all in 1983.
Like they've done throughout the homestand, fans cheered wildly and waved their white-and-red "Fightin' Phils" towels.
With Hamels pitching like an ace and Howard and Rollins supplying clutch hits, most people paid more attention to the Mets-Marlins score.
Hamels displayed tremendous poise for a 23-year-old in his first full season in the majors. He struck out the side in the fourth and sixth, and fanned everyone in the starting lineup except the pitcher.
Hamels got in trouble once, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the second by getting Redding to ground into an inning-ending double play.
"He was fantastic," Nationals manager Manny Acta said.
Hamels put down a perfect sacrifice, earning a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd that isn't used to seeing the Phillies execute fundamentals.
Rollins hit the next pitch up the middle to score two runs and give the Phillies a 2-0 lead. Once again, Rollins was serenaded with chants of "M-V-P" as he stood at first base and pointed to the sky.
"He's done everything a guy can do," Manuel said of his switch-hitting shortstop. "I don't know what else he can do except sell tickets and popcorn."
- Rollins got his 706th at-bat in the third inning to set the single-season major league record. He broke the mark established in 1980 by Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals
- The 22nd sellout of the season put the Phillies over 3 million in attendance for the third time in club history. They also did it in '93 and 2004, the first year at Citizens Bank Park
- Ryan Zimmerman's hitting streak ended at 13 games.