September has turned scary again for the Phillies. In the driver’s seat for a wild-card spot with the opportunity to put away the Brewers, Philadelphia has lost seven of its past 10 games, including one to Atlanta on Sunday that bore the haunting similarities of Septembers past.
The Phillies were four outs away from beating the Braves—two outs in the eighth, bases empty, David Robertson on the mound—and lost. Robertson threw an 0-and-2 wild pitch to provide Atlanta with the tying run. The Braves won in 11 innings, 8–7.
Here we go again. The Phillies’ bullpen is 3–6 in September. It is the worst bullpen in baseball in the second half (5.05), except for the Red Sox. They remain a bottom-five defensive team.
Sound familiar? Since 2018, the Phillies have played .529 baseball in the first five months of the season—the equivalent of an 86-win team. But in these five seasons they also are 57–80 in September—morphing at crunch time into the equivalent of a 95-loss team. They are 10–11 this month and 11–14 in their past 25 games.
Of course, this Phillies team is different from the others: new manager, new players and their best pitching staff in eight years. But even if these Phillies did not form the September narrative, they inherited it. It remains in play until they end the longest playoff drought in the National League.
The Phillies have 10 games left—all on the road. The Brewers have nine games left—all at home. Philadelphia’s magic number is eight to clinch a playoff spot. But that also means if the Phillies go 5–5 against the Cubs, Nationals and Astros and Milwaukee goes 7–2 against the Cardinals, Marlins and Diamondbacks, the Brewers are in, and the Phillies are out (pending the finish by the Padres).
Possible? You bet. Probable? Not really. The September narrative and Sunday giveaway notwithstanding, Philadelphia has what it takes to hold its playoff spot. Here is why:
1. Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez
Those three Phillies starters have posted a 2.42 ERA in nine starts this month. They will start six of Philadelphia’s next nine games. They are lined up to start the three wild-card games if the team gets there.
Fresh off the IL, Wheeler averaged 97.9 mph on his four-seamer in his most recent start, the hardest he has thrown in a game since August 2021. He threw 31 fastballs without giving up a hit—while rebuilding his arm strength and pitch count.
Nola has posted a 2.08 ERA in four September starts. Suárez has thrown 146⅓ innings, a jump of 40⅓ innings from last year, but he’s 27 years old and threw 139 innings in 2018. He’s in a good place as far as his workload is concerned. The Phillies are 17–10 when he starts.
And then there is this:
Lowest SLG Allowed on Sinkers, NL
Aaron Nola, Phillies
Ranger Suárez, Phillies
Noah Syndergaard, Phillies
Miles Mikolas, Cardinals
Kyle Wright, Braves
2. Home run differential
The Phillies have outhomered their opponents by 54. That’s an elite difference in a telling category in the modern game. They have plenty of game-changing power in the bats of left fielder Kyle Schwarber, designated hitter Bryce Harper, first baseman Rhys Hoskins and catcher J.T. Realmuto, but how their sinker-heavy pitching staff suppresses damage is equally impressive.
3. Rob Thomson
Thomson, 59, logged 34 years as a minor league coach, field coordinator and farm director and as a major league coach before Philadelphia fired Joe Girardi (22–29) and replaced him with Thomson. The team has responded well to his easygoing manner, his attention to detail and his commitment to using a regular lineup and defined roles in the bullpen. The Phillies are 61–40 under Thomson.
4. Harper is due.
Harper has hit .204 in 93 at bats since coming off the IL, during which the Phillies are 12–14. By now he should be knocking off the rust from missing 53 games. His “second spring training” is over.
5. The Nationals
The Phillies are 13–2 against the Nats this season, with four games remaining between the two teams. Before that series, however, Philadelphia’s season may be decided in the next three games: Wheeler, Nola and Suárez are lined up to face the Cubs, who are 3–0 against the Phils. Lose that series with your three best arms, and the heat rises on Philadelphia.
6. The offense
Nick Castellanos is expected to return from an oblique injury in the Chicago series. The way the Phillies are built they will need to hit their way into the playoffs. They are fifth in slugging, sixth in homers and seventh in runs per game. The top eight teams in runs scored per game are all in playoff position today.
7. Beating Burnes.
The Brewers and Phillies were tied 1–1 in the fifth inning on June 9 when Brewers manager Craig Counsell removed Corbin Burnes with a pitch count of 113 and two runners on—one of whom reached on a dropped third strike by catcher Victor Caratini. Miguel Sánchez relieved and promptly allowed both runners to score. Philadelphia went on to win 8–3, clinching the season series against the Brewers. The Phillies wore down Burnes quickly with four walks and 20 foul balls in less than five innings.
In this lockout-amended season, no tiebreaker games will be played. The win over Burnes looms large because if Milwaukee and Philadelphia tie, the Phillies get in because of their better head-to-head record. That means although the Brewers are two games behind in the loss column, they are really three games back with 10 to play.
The June 9 win was Philadelphia’s sixth straight since Thomson replaced Girardi. Consider the managerial change a wake-up call that worked. Said Harper after that game in Milwaukee, “We needed to get going. Everybody knew that. It’s just a different vibe.”
The Phillies played their last regular-season home game Sunday. They packed their suitcases for as many as 15 straight games on the road: to Chicago, Washington, Houston, and if they hold off Milwaukee, St. Louis and, if they advance, New York. If they catch San Diego for the second wild card, the itinerary might be Chicago, Washington, Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles. That run would mark 24 straight days on the road—a grind they would love to experience. The Phillies have not ended a regular season with a 10-game trip since 1967, when under manager Gene Mauch they went 3–7 in which they suffered each of their final six losses by one run, including three straight walk-offs in Houston.
These are not Gene Mauch’s Phillies any more than they are Gabe Kapler’s Phillies or Girardi’s Phillies. As Harper said, the vibe is different. Baseball Reference gives the Phils an 82.4% chance of getting into the playoffs. The biggest obstacle in their way is a history they have inherited. They have 10 games left to change the narrative.
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