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The six teams that are hovering around .500 — St. Louis (28-26), Miami (29-28), Cincinnati (29-28), San Francisco (28-28), the Phillies (28-29) and Milwaukee (27-29) — and competing for the final four NL playoff spots have gone a combined 9-14 this week, but the Marlins greatly enhanced their playoff hopes Thursday by holding on for a 4-2, rain-delayed win in Atlanta in a game that ended after midnight.

With one win this weekend against the Yankees in New York and one loss by the Phillies in Tampa Bay, the Marlins clinch second place in the National League East, leaving the Phillies to fight it out for one of the two wild-card spots.

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— Bob Brookover (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

The last time the Phillies played a series this big against the Tampa Bay Rays, it was the World Series. The Phillies, of course, won that series in five games.
David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
The last time the Phillies played a series this big against the Tampa Bay Rays, it was the World Series. The Phillies, of course, won that series in five games.

Another huge series for Phillies against Tampa Bay

The last time the Phillies played a big series against the Rays in Tampa Bay was 2008, and we all know that had one of the happiest endings in Philadelphia history because it ended a 25-year championship drought for the city.

The stakes are not that high this weekend, but the three-game series that starts Friday night at Tropicana Field will allow the Phillies to attempt to end another drought. They have not been to the playoffs since 2011, which was also the last time they had a winning record. They’ll need a sweep for the winning record, and they’ll probably need to win two of three to get into the postseason.

As final examinations go, the 37-20 Rays are as difficult as it gets. They have already locked up an American League East title that was supposed to be won by the New York Yankees, and they can claim home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs by winning two of three against the Phillies. Tampa Bay’s most likely first-round playoff opponent is division rival Toronto, which locked up a playoff berth by beating the Yankees on Thursday.

Tampa Bay’s greatest strength is its pitching. The Rays' 3.67 ERA is fifth best in baseball, and they will throw Charlie Morton against Vince Velasquez in the series opener Friday night. Morton, 2-2 with a 4.64 ERA, has not been as impressive this season as he was a year ago when he finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting, but his elevated ERA is deceiving. Since giving up six runs in his first start of the year against the Blue Jays, he has a 3.41 ERA in seven starts.

The Rays have not revealed whom they will send to the mound Saturday and Sunday to face Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. If they stay on turn, it will be lefty Ryan Yarbrough (1-4, 3.75 ERA) on Saturday night. They could also attempt to get some playoff tune-up work for their top two starters, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, at some point during the series.

Regardless of how the Rays set up their pitching, it is going to be a challenge for Phillies hitters. If the Rays decide to use it as they have in three of their last 10 games, they have a lethal arsenal of relief arms. Tampa Bay’s 3.50 bullpen ERA is the fourth best in baseball. You don’t want to be behind late against the Rays, who have eight relievers with at least 10 appearances and an ERA less than 4.00, including six that have ERAs under 3.00.

By comparison, the Phillies have just two relievers — Blake Parker and Tommy Hunter — with at least 10 appearances and an ERA less than 4.00.

The Rays, led by Brandon Lowe’s 14 home runs and .933 OPS, are also a solid offensive team, averaging 4.8 runs, which is more than enough for their deep pitching staff.

If the Phillies can somehow win two games against the Rays, they should get in because some of the teams they are competing against also have difficult year-end assignments. The Reds, for example, have three games at Minnesota, where the Twins are 23-5 this season and badly want to win the AL Central to prevent having to play a first-round series against the Yankees. Six of the Twins' last seven playoff appearances have ended in series against the Yankees, who are 16-2 in the postseason against Minnesota.

The Giants have four games at home against San Diego, which is locked into the fourth seed. The Marlins play three games in New York against the Yankees, who will either be the fourth or fifth seed. And St. Louis and Milwaukee have four games against each other at Busch Stadium.

The rundown

Scott Lauber talked to former Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Joe Girardi about how a team sometimes has to learn how to win big games before it breaks through as a playoff team. It’s a phase the 2018 and 2019 Phillies failed to complete, and now the 2020 team has its own opportunity this weekend.

The Extra Innings podcast with Lauber, Matt Breen and Bob Brookover has returned just in time for a weekend preview of the Phillies' playoff hopes as they open a three-game series in Tampa Bay.

Important dates

Tonight: Vince Velasquez faces Charlie Morton in series opener at Tampa Bay, 6:40 p.m.

Tomorrow: Zack Wheeler vs. Rays, 7:07 p.m.

Sunday: Aaron Nola in regular-season finale vs. Rays, 3:10 p.m.

Wednesday: Game 1 of all four NL wild-card series. Are the Phillies in?

Oct. 20: Game 1 of the World Series in Arlington, Texas.

Thanks in part to shortstop Didi Gregorius' 10 home runs and team-leading 40 RBIs, the Phillies are likely going to average more than five runs per game this season for the first time since 2009.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Thanks in part to shortstop Didi Gregorius' 10 home runs and team-leading 40 RBIs, the Phillies are likely going to average more than five runs per game this season for the first time since 2009.

Stat of the day

If the Phillies fail to get into the postseason, it would be difficult to blame the offense. They have averaged 5.25 runs through 57 games, which ranked fifth in baseball through Wednesday’s games. The four teams ahead of them — Atlanta (5.98), the Los Angeles Dodgers (5.77), San Diego (5.43) and the New York Yankees (5.36) — and the first team behind them — the Chicago White Sox (5.09) — have all clinched playoff spots.

It appears as if the Phillies are going to average 5 runs per game for the first time since 2009, when they finished fourth in baseball and first in the National League with 5.10 runs per game. This would be just the fifth time in this century the Phillies have averaged more than 5 runs. They also did it in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @brookob.

Twitter

Answer: Thanks for the question, Kevin. I bet that’s a question a lot of Phillies fans have.

From a pure statistical standpoint, the answer is four, which is the number of losses for Brandon Workman, and that’s the right number of defeats in which Workman at least played a major part. He has three blown saves that all resulted in losses, and he also was charged with a loss when he entered a Sept. 17 game against the Mets with the scored tied, 6-6, and gave up four runs.

Heath Hembree does not have any losses or blown saves, but he played a major role in Sunday’s 6-3 loss to Toronto by allowing four runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings.

So I would say the answer to your question is five. But we can add this: Hembree and Workman have allowed runs in 15 of their 25 appearances and have a combined 9.27 ERA. They have allowed 40 hits, including 11 home runs, in 22 1/3 innings.