Every season, in every playoff race, you usually reap what you sow. For example, if you get swept away by a team that loses 109 games, or if you play three out of four games at home against a club that plays .265 ball on the street, you neither deserve nor likely get a postseason spot do brace.
But here are the Phillies, as unworthy as possible, with two paths to the playoffs and at least one weak pulse in both pursuits.
With 18 games remaining, they are 4½ games behind league-leading Atlanta Braves (five in the losing column). The Phillies insist that they focus on making up for this deficit, particularly with a series of three games in Atlanta coming September 28-30.
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“I just think we have to be within striking distance when we get to Atlanta,” said Bryce Harper. “If we can do that, we’ll pick up the way we’re playing again. Overall, I’m not afraid of that. “
Sounds good, but here’s the rough calculation: if the Braves finish 9-10, the Phillies would have to leave 13-5 just to tie them up. The Phillies have had five opportunities to gain ground against the Braves in the past 12 days. They only recorded one game.
So it’s worth wondering if the wildcard is a more realistic straight. The Phillies are three games behind the upstart St. Louis Cardinals for second wildcard place in the National League, but there are two teams between them. Even if the Cardinals stumble, the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres would have to stub their toes over and over again.
Here’s a look at the wildcard contenders in a mostly uninspiring race ahead of Wednesday night’s games:
When the Cardinals acquired veteran leftists Jon Lester and JA Happ at close of trade, they were 51-51 with a 3.2% chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. But they have won six of their last seven games, including an 11-inning seesaw game Tuesday night against the New York Mets, and they control their fate.
Record: 75-69, run the second wild card through half a game.
Playoff odds: 31.4%, according to Fangraphs
Why they might make it: They are the majors’ best defensive team, with previous Gold Glove winners in the catcher (Yadier Molina), first base (Paul Goldschmidt) and third base (Nolan Arenado) and perhaps a future center field winner (Harrison Bader). Molina and 40-year-old ace Adam Wainwright are bursting with playoff experience and leadership skills. If any of these flawed teams can be counted on to seal the deal over the past few weeks, it is likely the Cardinals.
Why not: the schedule is not an ally. After a gigantic three-game series this weekend at home against the Padres, the Cardinals will play their last 14 games against the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs would do nothing more than dash their arch rivals’ playoff hopes while the Brewers line up for the playoffs. Imagine the Phillies just playing the Mets and Braves on the track and you get the idea.
A 22-12 surge in the second half, fueled by Joey Votto’s revival, proved unsustainable. The Reds seemed ready by the end of August to run away with a wildcard seat and maybe even make the Brewers sweat at NL Central. Instead, they have come back to the pack, losing 11 of their last 15 games.
Balance: 75-70, half game back
Playoff odds: 36.2%
Why they could do it: Jesse Winker, the Reds’ # 2 hitter and one of the more underrated offensive players in the game, is about to return from a strained chest muscle that has been incapacitating him since mid-August. It should also help have eight of their last 17 games played against the pathetic Pirates. Even after the loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening, the Reds are 9-2 against them this season.
Why not: Votto, who caused some Midsummer MVP chatter, has cooled significantly, beating .172 / .321 / .344 in his last 21 games. Although Luis Castillo has been better off lately, he was the Reds version of Aaron Nola. In a rotation filled with No. 3-4 guys, Wade Miley was Cincinnati’s most consistent starter.
Do you remember when it was a foregone conclusion that NL West would have three teams in the postseason? The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers have held their own as the top two teams in the league. But the Padres collapsed like a sandcastle at high tide. They were 66-49 years old on August 10th. They have been 8-21 years old since then.
Record: 74-70, one game back
Playoff odds: 23.8%
Why They Might Make It: Fernando Tatis Jr. is the league’s top all-rounder and has started 25 games in a row since returning from a shoulder injury that left him out for two weeks. As a sidekicks, it doesn’t get much better than Manny Machado. The Padres should ride their starting grid to the playoffs. Instead, they need their two best hitters to take the lead.
Why not: let’s count the reasons, from Jake Cronenworth’s broken finger and Blake Snell’s groin injury to an unforgiving schedule that includes eight games against the Giants and three each against the Dodgers, Cardinals and Braves.
When is a mediocre team just a mediocre team? How about if the record is 0.500 after 69 games out of 144, or goes both ways within a game?
Record: 72-72, three games back
Playoff odds: 14.3%
Why they could do it: Because next week they play seven games in a row at home against the Baltimore Orioles and Pirates, which together are 90 games under .500. Of course we’re talking about the Phillies here. They were swept in Arizona last month and dropped three out of four off to Colorado last week. Obviously, they don’t accept appointment gifts.
Why not: Rhys Hoskins is out for the season after abdominal surgery; JT Realmuto has shoulder pain; Andrew McCutchen no longer hits right-handed; Didi Gregorius had the worst year of his career; every fifth day is a bullpen game; the Phillies are 29-41 for the last three Septembers (0.414 percent profit). Do we have to go on? Oh, and missed opportunities to gain ground made them need help from other teams. It’s not impossible, but the odds are against them.
After picking up two out of three from the Crosstown Yankees last weekend, they seemed to be back on their feet for the first time since June. Then they lost back to back to the Cardinals at home. The Phillies have a chance to ditch the Mets at Citi Field this weekend.
Record: 72-74, four games back
Playoff odds: 3.4%
Why They Might Make It: There’s really no reason to believe they’ll do it except that it would fit into the narrative of a chaotic season in Queens under new owner Steve Cohen.
Why they might not be: Let’s face it: The Mets’ chances fizzled after Jacob deGrom almost certainly threw his last litter of the season on July 7th. Even if they survive the Phillies’ visit, they will travel to Boston and Milwaukee next week. Thumbs down.