The Philadelphia Phillies came to town last week in the thick of the National League playoff race. They were in second place in the East Division, two games behind the Central Division’s Houston Astros in the battle for the wild-card postseason berth. Yet no baseball fan in his or her right mind would have traded the Cubs for the Phillies straight up, not even if their positions in the standings had been included in the deal.

For one thing, by the time the Cubs had swept the three-game series the Phils were four-and-a-half games out of that final playoff spot, not so much better than the Cubs at seven-and-a-half games back. Yet the main reason to nix the exchange is that the Cubs are so clearly on the upswing and the Phillies so clearly on the down that it would be like taking a train in the opposite direction after almost reaching one’s destination. The Cubs, to be sure, have their problems, foremost among them the almost total inability to accept a base on balls. Their pitching staff, however, is young, promising, and–most important of all–fundamentally sound. The starters especially are a wonderful group to watch, and unlike the New York Mets’ new crop of phenoms they have already been tested by time and travesty. The difference between the Cubs and the Phillies was never so clear as when Jim Bullinger pitched a beautiful three-hit shutout on Sunday–the Cubs’ first complete-game shutout of the season–while Philadelphia, troubled by a season-long rash of injuries on its pitching staff, suffered through a miserable appearance by the retread Jim Deshaies. The Cubs pounced on him for four in the first and two more in the second to coast home 8-0.

Bullinger was drafted by the Cubs as a shortstop in the mid-80s. Yet his .256 batting average at Class A Winston-Salem in 1987 was as good as it got for him as a minor-league hitter; he followed that with averages of .169 and .192 at two locations the following year, then a .216 at AA Charlotte in 1989. That was where he made his first appearances as a pitcher, and the next season he completed the transition, beginning a fairly rapid rise through the Cubs’ system. He had 14 saves at AAA Iowa in 1992 and 20 more there the following year. Throughout his career, wherever he has gone and no matter his role, starter or reliever, he has put together an impressive two-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best statistical indicator of a young pitcher’s promise.

Even so, Bullinger is no kid phenom; he turns 30 later this month. And while he has the tall, thin body of a shortstop, he moves with the precise, almost prim self-possession of a pitcher. Something about him is very studied and mannered, while shortstops are usually loose, either in their joints, like Don Kessinger, or in their personalities, like Shawon Dunston. Like all the Cubs starters, Bullinger has a very sound pitching motion–pump the arms overhead, kick, and deliver–but with one unusual tic left over from his days as an infielder: he holds his pitching hand and glove hand ever so slightly apart, and taps them together in the middle of his delivery like a shortstop measuring the throw to first (a favorite mannerism of Dunston’s). Bullinger might have smoothed out that little idiosyncrasy by now; instead he’s adapted it as part of his makeup. He has a nice little fastball, which he can drift to the right or cut to the left, to go with an excellent curve and a good change-up.

In Sunday’s 90-degree heat he pitched a seemingly effortless three-hit shutout, with a career-high eight strikeouts, against a generally fearsome Philadelphia lineup (albeit lacking leadoff man Lenny Dykstra). This followed a shutout on Friday begun by Frank Castillo and finished by Randy Myers, and another victory on Saturday.

The middle win was the most problematic for the pitching staff. Steve Trachsel, the Cubs’ most consistent starter a year ago, when most of the other members of the present rotation had their difficulties, has been snakebit at Wrigley Field, going 1-12 in 22 home starts the last two seasons. Saturday he struggled, allowing 14 base runners in six innings; still, he turned over a 5-2 lead to the bullpen. This time, though, Myers couldn’t close the game in the ninth. He surrendered the lead, sending Trachsel’s rare Wrigley win out the window, and it took a homer by Dunston in the bottom half to win it.

With Trachsel, this whole long second season in the majors has the look of a routine sophomore slump. He is perhaps the most prim and proper of all the Cubs’ pitchers in his delivery, with an elbows-out motion in which he seems to strike the pose of a prep-school student awaiting a reprimand. If he has the look of a preppy, though, it’s that tough in the back row of the class picture, the one with the beanie pulled low on his brow. Trachsel has a no-nonsense demeanor, the brim of his cap pulled low over his eyes (has anybody ever really seen them?), and a perpetual scowl on his face.

Castillo, who began the weekend sweep with a similarly agile start last Friday, might have the best breaking stuff of the bunch. Although only 26, he is the rotation’s leader in time of service with the Cubs, going back to 1991 when he was a student and protege of Greg Maddux. Maddux himself has said that Castillo has better stuff, but until this year he hadn’t mastered Maddux’s pinpoint control and unpredictable way with a pitch sequence. In Maddux’s last season with the Cubs, 1992, Castillo pitched 200 innings and won ten games, but then he went backward for two years, losing much of last season to rehabilitation from a hand injury. This season he became the best pitcher on the staff.

Friday he allowed ten base runners in six-plus innings but didn’t give up a run, thus shaving his earned run average to 2.59, fourth in the league. He also won for the seventh time, meaning that aside from Trachsel, at 3-8, every starter on the staff had either seven or eight victories.

Every year, we’ve found, one pitcher always seems to draw the starting assignment whenever we go out to the game. (The 1992 campaign, when we always seemed to draw Maddux in the first of his three straight–and counting–Cy Young seasons, was the best year for pitching in our memory.) This year it’s been Jaime Navarro. We were lucky to see Bullinger on Sunday, not only because he pitched a shutout but because we’d been expecting Navarro, whom we’d seen the previous Tuesday. (A day off Thursday gave the starters an extra day of rest.) Navarro is a 27-year-old reclamation project who struggled with the Milwaukee Brewers the last couple of seasons after winning 32 games in 1991 and ’92, and we’ve written about him already this season. He continues to impress with his big, deliberate windup and his knack for changing speeds. He really has become a complete pitcher this year, and his eighth win, a week ago last Tuesday, brought his ERA to 3.02.

The final member of the Cubs’ rotation is, like Bullinger, a converted infielder. Kevin Foster began his professional career as a third baseman in the Montreal Expos’ system, but like Bullinger he never hit better than .256 (until this year, that is; he was batting .270 through last weekend). He has a third baseman’s arm, sure enough, but his motion shows little sign of developing in the infield. Where most third basemen have crisp, compact throwing motions, not unlike a catcher’s (the Cubs’ current resident at third, Todd Zeile, is a converted catcher), Foster slings the ball toward home. That gives him the liveliest fastball on the staff and a team-leading 87 strikeouts, but because he has to challenge hitters he has also given up a league-leading 23 homers. Still, he had won half his 14 decisions going into this week, and his ERA was under 5.00. As a fifth starter he’ll do, and as a 26-year-old in only his sixth season of pitching he is likely to improve.

With five solid starters not yet 30 years old, this might be the best young group of pitchers the Cubs have ever had. Sure, they’ve had brighter single prospects in the past, but as a group Castillo, Navarro, Bullinger, Trachsel, and Foster are impressive. The Cubs entered the week with a 4.00 team ERA that was fourth in the league; with half the team’s games at Wrigley Field, that’s impressive. New York phenoms Bobby Jones, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen have been the talk of baseball this summer, and the Mets have Pete Wilson knocking on the door now in AAA, but those pitchers are all in their early 20s. It’s unrealistic to expect them to achieve consistency before they get knocked around for a season or two.

Still, it says here the Cubs and Mets will meet in the National League Championship Series within the next five years. By that time, most of these names will be household words.