The Phillies began the first half of the season with a three-game sweep of the Braves. They ended it Sunday by taking two of three from the Mets. So what happened in between? They lost seven times to the Marlins, struggled to hit home runs with the rest of baseball, gave up home runs like almost no other team in baseball, struck out a lot, placed each of their high-priced relievers on the injured list, watched their starting rotation struggle, and went from first place to third. Now, the Phillies are off for four days. Maybe that’s enough time to figure it out.

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— Matt Breen (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

The Phillies finally reached the playoffs in 2007, tasting victory champagne for the first time in 14 years. The new playoff drought is 7 years old.
Philadelphia Daily News
The Phillies finally reached the playoffs in 2007, tasting victory champagne for the first time in 14 years. The new playoff drought is 7 years old.

Phillies’ best playoff route looks like wild card

Jay Bruce hit two homers on Sunday, tormented his old team, and then said his new team’s goals are the same as they were at the beginning of the season.

“I think we want to win the division. We’re not playing for a wild card,” said Bruce, who was traded this offseason from the Mets to the Mariners before landing with the Phillies in June. “But it’s a situation that the past is the past and we just have to continue to play good baseball. We have to play better than we did in the first half.”

In order to win the National League East, the Phillies will have to pass both the Braves and the Nationals. They play the Braves 10 more times and have seven games left with the Nationals. They are 6.5 games back of Atlanta with 72 games to play. It’s not an impossible margin to overcome, but it could be difficult. The Braves are on pace for 96 wins. The Phillies would have to play .680 baseball the rest of the way to catch that.

And then there’s the Nationals, who are the hottest team in the division and have three elite starting pitchers. They’ve won 15 of their last 19 games with Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg all pitching at high levels. The Phillies, struggling to complete a starting rotation, have to be a bit envious of what Washington has. If Atlanta stumbles, the Phillies won’t be the only team trying to pass by.

The Phillies may not be playing for a wild card, but there is no shame in it. It could also be their best route to October. The wild card is still a playoff berth despite being guaranteed just one game with the winner likely moving on to face the Dodgers. The Phillies and Nationals claim the two wild cards at the All-Star break with six teams within 2.5 games. The Rockies and Padres won’t catch the Dodgers, but they could catch the wild card. The Cubs are in first place in the National League Central, but they could fall to the wild-card race. If not, the Brewers and Cardinals will be in the wild-card mix.

The Phillies have never won a wild card. It’s not something to savor like a division title. But it’s a seat at the postseason table and this season was built to reach the playoffs. Anything less would be a disappointment.

“I think we all know that we underachieved in the first half and we expect to play better,” Bruce said. “I think our team’s better than what we’ve played. What’s done is done, and I look forward to the second half and seeing what’s going to happen.”

The rundown

Aaron Nola looked good on Sunday, but they’ll need more than just Nola, Bob Brookover writes. “It was nice and neat, but it could not erase the question that is on the mind of every Phillies fan ahead of Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Cleveland: What the heck is wrong with this team?”

The Phillies will find out soon if they are without Jake Arrieta, who may require surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. Arrieta will be evaluated this week by the team doctors and there’s a chance that he could continue to pitch through it. Arrieta has a 6.63 ERA in his last seven starts.

Phillies prospect Alec Bohm was in Cleveland on Sunday for the Futures Game and so was Charlie Manuel. Manuel, who was a bench coach for the American League in the minor-league showcase, had high praise for Bohm as the third baseman zooms through the minors this summer.

Remember Sixto Sanchez? The former Phillies top prospect said he cried this offseason when he was traded to Miami as part of the trade that landed J.T. Realmuto.

Important dates

Today: Home Run Derby in Cleveland, 8 p.m.

Tomorrow: J.T. Realmuto plays in the All-Star Game, 7:30 p.m.

Friday: Phillies return after the All-Star Break to open series with Nationals, 6:05 p.m.

Sunday: Ryan Howard retires in pregame ceremony, 1:05 p.m.

Jay Bruce said the Phillies know they underachieved during the first half this year.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Jay Bruce said the Phillies know they underachieved during the first half this year.

Stat of the day

The Phillies won’t see the Mets again until Labor Day Weekend which is bad news because the Phillies have won nine of their 13 games against them this season. They play the Mets six more times and if they win just one of them, the Phillies will win a season series against their rivals for the first time since 2011. From 2012 to 2018, the Phillies went a combined 50-82 against the Mets.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.

Question: Why isn’t Bryce Harper in the home-run derby? Shouldn’t the champ be able to defend his crown? - Dave L. via email.

Answer: Thanks, Dave. Harper is not in Cleveland this week but his face is plastered on banners all over downtown. The Phillies outfielder likely could have participated in the Home Run Derby, but he said last month that he didn’t want to do it this year. He won last year’s derby in Washington and said the event wore him out. It was time for a break. Rhys Hoskins said he would have loved to do it again this year, but was never asked.