With the Pirates having gone 9-21 over their last 30 games and the Dodgers’ having gone 7-12 since August 12 as injuries have started to pile up, the National League playoff field has started to coalesce. Yet, there’s one team that’s not quite ready to concede the season just yet despite the fact that most had given up on them months ago. According to Clay Davenport’s Postseason Odds, the NL team with the best chance of a postseason berth that’s not the Pirates, Dodgers, or a current leader is, wait for it . . . the Philadelphia Phillies.
Yes, the Phillies, who quickly sank to fifth place in the NL East this season and occupied that spot for all but four days from May 4 to August 4, are now in fifth place in the NL wild-card race and, with a win Tuesday night, would pull their record up to .500 for the first time since June 4. The Phillies’ low point came on July 13, after they lost the first game after the All-Star break to fall 14 games below .500 at 37-51 (.420), but since then, they have gone 32-20 (.615) despite trading two-thirds of their starting outfield and losing MVP candidate Carlos Ruiz to the disabled list.
Now, to be clear, the Phillies postseason hopes are not terribly realistic. Though they are just five games back in the wild-card race, and the Pirates and Dodges are sinking, the Braves have all but locked down the first wild-card spot, and Davenport’s system places Philadelphia’s odds of surpassing the Cardinals to claim that second spot at just 2.7 percent. Still, that’s just shy of the 2.9 percent chance Davenport gives the Tigers of claiming one of the American League wild-card spots, and Detroit is still talked about as a player in that race (though perhaps they shouldn’t be), and it’s worth noting that the Cardinals have been slumping as well, going 4-9 over the last two weeks.
So what turned the Phillies season around? One might think it was the returns of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard just before the All-Star Break, as their absences were certainly a large part of why the first half went so poorly for the Phils, but while both have indeed upgraded their positions, second and first base, respectively, both are performing well below their established levels, and the Phillies as a team are actually scoring less often in the second half (4.07 runs per game) than they did in their miserable first half (4.23 R/G).
No, as was the expectation in April, the reason the Phillies are winning is pitching. Rather than Utley and Howard, the key return for the Phillies in the second half was that of Roy Halladay, who struggled in May before missing the remainder of the first half with a latissimus dorsi strain behind his pitching shoulder. Halladay returned on July 17 and, over his last eight starts, has gone 5-2 with a 3.17. Similarly, Cliff Lee had an awful June, finishing the month with a season ERA over 4.00 and still looking for his first win of 2012, but, since then, he has gone 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA and has been particularly effective in his last three starts (2-0, 1.33 ERA, the two wins coming against the Nationals and Braves). Cole Hamels has been on the edge of the Cy Young race all season, but in the second half he has gone 4-2 with a 2.74 ERA and currently owns a streak of seven straight quality starts that dates back to the beginning of August. Swing-man Kyle Kendrick re-entered the rotation after Joe Blanton was traded to the Dodgers in early August and after two rough outings has gone 5-1 with a 1.49 ERA over his last six, all quality. The Phillies even got a couple of strong starts from 25-year-old rookie righthander Tyler Cloyd, who was pressed into action at the end of August after Vance Worley required season-ending elbow surgery.
Altogether, the Phillies have allowed just 3.77 runs per game in the second half, down from 4.55 runs per game in the first half. Since the All-Star break, their starting rotation has posted a 3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 4.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and their bullpen has held opponents to a .193/.293/.332 batting line. It won’t last, however. Kendrick will come back to earth. Cloyd, who was bounced after four innings by the Rockies at Citizens Bank Park in his last start, may already have done so, and Halladay, despite his good results of late, has lost yet another mile per hour off his fastball relative to how hard he was throwing in May, when concerns about the 35-year-old’s velocity presaged his injury.
It’s not breaking news that the Phillies won’t make the playoffs, but it’s worth noting that, in a season that seemed lost and saw them become sellers at the trading deadline, they’ve still managed to become contenders in September. -- By Cliff Corcoran