Over? Did someone say the Phillies' playoff bid was over?
Just as Bluto rallied the Deltas in Animal House, Zach Eflin provided a stellar start, Bryce Harper shrugged off back pain to clock two home runs, and the Phillies broke a four-game losing streak with a 12-3 laugher Wednesday night in a game they absolutely needed at Nationals Park.
They got some help, too. Gabe Kapler’s Giants won again, but the Cardinals, Brewers, and most importantly, the Marlins all lost. So, the Phillies enter today’s off-day trailing the Marlins by a half-game for second place in the NL East and the Giants and Reds by one game for a wild-card spot.
Confused? Then we won’t spin your head (yet) by getting into all the tiebreakers. Just know this: If the Phillies don’t keep winning, it won’t matter how any of those other teams do.
“If you’re able to run the table and win all your games, you’re going to have a really good shot at getting in the playoffs,” manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s the bottom line.”
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Zach Eflin, Game 1 starter … or Game 60 closer?
Picture this: It’s Sunday, the Phillies need to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays to clinch a playoff spot, and they have a one-run lead when Aaron Nola walks off the mound in the eighth inning.
Who gets the ball?
“I will definitely talk to him about that,” Girardi said.
With Zack Wheeler due to start Saturday and Nola on Sunday at Tropicana Field, Eflin is lined up for Game 1 of a best-of-three wild-card series, a prospect that excites Girardi based on the way the right-hander has pitched in his last two starts.
The Phillies have to get there first, though, and if it means using Eflin on short rest in a high-leverage relief role in the season finale, so be it, especially considering the bullpen’s collective 7.17 ERA this season.
“I want to make myself available in any way that I can to the team,” Eflin said. “If that means pitching this weekend, then I’ll pitch this weekend.”
Eflin threw 98 pitches on Wednesday night in Washington, holding the Nationals to three runs on six hits in eight innings. Including his previous outing last weekend against the Toronto Blue Jays, he has allowed three runs and racked up 18 strikeouts in his last 15 innings.
Central to Eflin’s success, in addition to going back to relying on his sinker, has been the evolution of his curveball. Entering Wednesday night’s start, opponents were slugging .121 against it, compared to .649 last season.
“To be completely honest, I just stopped throwing it like a baby,” Eflin said. “I’m really aggressive with it now. I kind of used to cast it. It used to pop out of my hand and come down. But I worked a lot during the quarantine back home on my curveball. I knew I needed to get a pitch in the dirt. It’s cool to see that pitch come to fruition for all the work I put into it.”
Eflin would typically throw a between-starts bullpen session on Friday or Saturday. If he starts Game 1, however, it wouldn’t be until Wednesday. Could the Phillies delay his bullpen session, make him available for an inning of relief Sunday on three days' rest, and still have him lined up to start the playoff opener three days later?
“It’s definitely a possibility,” Eflin said. “We’ll show up to the field Friday and talk about it then and see what we’re thinking. But I want the ball. I’m going to be available in any way I can.”
In the biggest start of his career (so far), Eflin delivered. Matt Breen puts it into perspective against the backdrop of the playoff race.
Harper was “really hurting,” according to Girardi, after Tuesday’s doubleheader. How did he overcome the lower back pain that has nagged at him for five weeks — and hit two home runs? The good news for Harper is that he won’t need offseason surgery.
It has been trending this way for days, but Girardi made it official: Rhys Hoskins (elbow) won’t play this weekend, so his season will be over unless the Phillies make the playoffs.
If, like me, you wondered why recently signed first baseman Greg Bird wasn’t included in the Phillies' 40-man playoff pool, there’s a good reason: He tested positive for COVID-19.
Today: Last regular-season off-day for Phillies.
Tomorrow: Vince Velasquez starts series opener at Tampa Bay, 6:40 p.m.
Saturday: Zack Wheeler faces the Rays, 7:07 p.m.
Sunday: Aaron Nola scheduled to start regular-season finale, 3:05 p.m.
Wednesday: NL wild-card round begins. Will Phillies be in it?
Stat of the day
If the Phillies miss the playoffs, a rash of injuries in the final month of the season will rank high atop the list of explanations. Scott Kingery, Adam Morgan, Jay Bruce, Roman Quinn, Spencer Howard, J.T. Realmuto, Hoskins, Kyle Garlick, Jake Arrieta, and Heath Hembree all missed time since Aug. 31, and Harper played through the aforementioned lower back issue.
But the Phillies were actually among the healthier teams, relatively speaking, for most of the season.
Fourteen Phillies players took a turn on the injured list for a total of 303 days entering play Wednesday. By comparison, the playoff-bound Braves and Padres had 17 and 16 players on the IL for 446 and 464 days, respectively. Then there are the Marlins (32 players, 996 days) and Cardinals (21 players, 551 days), who were depleted by positive COVID-19 tests but have better records than the Phils.
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Answer: Hey, Andrew. Really interesting question.
As much as any player I know, Harper appreciates the business of baseball. Two years ago, he left the only team he ever played for because he got more money elsewhere. If Realmuto bolts for a better deal in free agency, Harper, of all people, will understand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll be happy about it. Harper has noted that he spread out his $330 million deal over 13 years to help the Phillies maintain payroll flexibility. I doubt he would demand a trade if Realmuto is allowed to leave, but I also don’t think he’d hide his disappointment.
That said, Phillies management was aware of Harper’s fondness for Realmuto even before bringing them together as teammates in 2018. Some club officials believe that trading for Realmuto helped them win the Harper derby. So they would expect a reaction from Harper if Realmuto walks, and you would think that they will communicate with him appropriately to head off any problems.