It was hard to find a more dire day this season than last Thursday when the Phillies scratched Zach Eflin with a knee injury and Rhys Hoskins announced he would have season-ending surgery before they lost yet again to the woeful Arizona Diamondbacks.
It wasn’t yet September but the Phillies were a game below .500. The season looked ready to come off the rails. Yet Phillies manager Joe Girardi didn’t sound like someone ready to throw in the towel.
“It’s the personality inside you, it’s the fight in you, right?” Girardi said. “You always have fight in you. I believe I do. I believe our guys do. You have to have that fight in you. To me, this is what life is about, right? Get knocked down, you have to get back up, and I’ve seen our guys do it a number of times and I believe they’re capable.”
The Phillies have done just that as they finished August by scoring at least seven runs in seven straight games. They woke up on September facing just a 2½-game deficit in the wild-card race and the National League East. The Phillies have 30 games remaining starting with Thursday’s afternoon makeup game in Washington and their opponent’s combined winning percentage is just .462.
A week after everything seemed to be falling apart, the Phillies suddenly have a path to October. They play 21 of their final games against the Nationals, Marlins, Rockies, Cubs, Orioles, and Pirates. This is the time to scoreboard-watch, but the Phillies’ schedule is so light that a postseason berth is almost assured to them if they simply clean up against some of baseball’s worst teams. If so, they won’t be begging for help elsewhere.
They’ve been maddeningly inconsistent this season, but the Phillies enter the final month in playoff contention. Here’s a look at the other teams in the race (records going into Wednesday’s games):
Cincinnati Reds (71-62)
Division: Second place in NL Central (10 games back).
Wild card: Tied with San Diego for second wild card.
Strength of remaining schedule: .461.
Why feel bullish? The Reds lead the National League in OPS (.758) this season, but they ended August hitting just .201 with a .635 OPS over their final 13 games. All-Star outfielder Jesse Winker is on the injured list and Joey Votto has one multi-hit game in his last 18 games as his fantastic season is now stuck in a slump. The lineup has not been the same without Winker and there’s no indication that he’s nearing a return from an intercostal strain.
Why feel wary? Yes, the Phillies have an easy schedule in September, but the Reds have an even easier one. Nine of their next 12 games are against the Tigers, Cubs, and Pirates, whom they play nine more times. Passing them could be difficult. Even if the offense continues to drag, the Reds could lean on their starting rotation, which has the sixth-lowest ERA (3.85) in the NL. All five starters have ERAs this season above league average.
San Diego Padres (71-62)
Division: Third place in NL West (13½ games back).
Wild card: Tied with Cincinnati for second wild card.
Strength of remaining schedule: .546.
Why feel bullish? The Padres play 16 of their remaining 28 games against the Dodgers and Giants, which easily gives them the hardest road to October of any team in the wild-card chase. They’re 11-11 this season against their division rivals, and playing .500 against them in September likely won’t be good enough. Fernando Tatis Jr. returned from the injured list on Aug. 15, but the lineup cooled off last month. Only the Pirates and Mets had a lower OPS (.681) in August than San Diego.
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Why feel wary? The Padres started August with a four-game lead in the wild card but watched that wilt away thanks to a depleted rotation. They were so thin last month that they signed Jake Arrieta after he was released by the Cubs. Arrieta recorded 10 outs before being placed on the injured list. But the Padres are healthy for September. Yu Darvish and Chris Paddack returned from the injured list and Blake Snell is rolling. A lineup with Tatis, Manny Machado, and Jake Cronenworth could be tough to beat when paired with starting pitching.
St. Louis Cardinals (67-63)
Division: Third place in NL Central (12½ games back).
Wild card: 2½ games back of second wild card.
Strength of remaining schedule: .526.
Why feel bullish? The Cardinals’ rotation has the seventh-best ERA (3.94) in the NL, but they could be without Jack Flaherty for the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury and Carlos Martinez is likely out for the season with a thumb injury he suffered in July. Adam Wainwright turned 40 this week and should garner Cy Young votes, but it will be hard to overcome the rotation injuries. The Cardinals play 23 of their final 30 games against teams in playoff contention.
Why feel wary? The Cardinals haven’t finished below .500 since 2007 and have missed the postseason just three times in the last 10 years. This is a team that knows how to reach October. The rotation is banged up, but the lineup finished August with an identical OPS (.769) as the Phils. They still have Paul Goldschmidt at first base and they traded last winter for Nolan Arenado for moments like this. We’ll see if they can carry them to the postseason.
Atlanta Braves (70-61)
Division: First place in NL East (2½ games up).
Wild card: --
Strength of remaining schedule: .482.
Why feel bullish? How many injuries can one team overcome? The Braves lost superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. in July yet surged into first place. On Tuesday night, Ozzie Albies was carried off the field after being hit by a pitch in the knee. The team said X-rays were negative but still could be without Albies for a game or so. At this time of the year, any missed time is significant. The Braves play four games this weekend at Coors Field, where the Rockies are 21 games above .500 this season. They fly back to the West Coast later this month for 11 games in 10 days, seven of which are against the Padres and Giants. It’s a tough road.
Why feel wary? The Braves had four players — Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson, Jorge Soler, and Freddie Freeman — finish August with an OPS of .865 or higher in the month. Riley hit .364 with a .974 OPS in August and is pushing himself into the MVP conversation. Even without Acuna, Atlanta’s lineup is still dangerous. The Braves’ bullpen had the fifth-best ERA last month in the NL and their rotation will be tough to beat if Charlie Morton and Max Fried pitch the way they did in August when they combined for a 2.12 ERA in 11 starts. The Braves have won three straight division titles, so don’t count on them going away without a fight.
New York Mets (65-67)
Division: Third place in the NL East (5½ games back).
Wild card: 5½ games back of second wild card.
Strength of remaining schedule: .497.
Why feel bullish? The Mets’ playoff chances got a big thumbs down in August after they finished the month with just nine wins in 28 games. They finished July in first place and as winners at the trade deadline after landing Javy Baez from the Cubs. But they finished August in a tailspin and at odds with their fans. Jacob deGrom seems unlikely to pitch again this season and Noah Syndergaard, who has not pitched since 2019, had his rehab delayed last week by a positive COVID-19 test. It’s hard to see the Mets pulling off a playoff run.
Why feel wary? The Mets could hit their way to the postseason if a lineup headed by Baez, Francisco Lindor, and Pete Alonso turns it on for the final month of the season. Their slugging percentage in August (.383) was the fourth-lowest in the NL, but it should get a chance to recover starting with a seven-game road trip to Washington and Miami. No deGrom or Syndergaard, but the Mets do have Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker. A roster that has not met expectations this season still has a chance to turn the Mets’ thumbs around.