Every season, in any playoff race, you usually reap what you sow. If, say, you get swept by a team that is on pace to lose 109 games, or you drop three of four at home to a club that plays .265 ball on the road, you neither deserve a postseason berth nor are you likely to clinch one.
Yet here are the Phillies, unworthy as can be, with two paths to the playoffs and at least a faint pulse in both pursuits.
With 18 games remaining, they trail the division-leading Atlanta Braves by 4½ games (five in the loss column). The Phillies insist they are focused on chipping away at that deficit, especially with a three-game series in Atlanta on tap for Sept. 28-30.
“I just think we need to be in striking distance when we get to Atlanta,” Bryce Harper said. “If we can do that, we pick up the way that we’re playing right now, we’ll be OK going in there. I don’t fear that as a whole.”
Sounds good, but here’s the stark math: If the Braves finish 9-10, the Phillies would have to go 13-5 just to tie them. The Phillies have had five opportunities in the last 12 days to gain ground on the Braves. They picked up only one game.
It’s worth wondering, then, if the wild card is a more realistic road. The Phillies trail the upstart St. Louis Cardinals by three games for the second National League wild-card berth, but there are two teams between them. Even if the Cardinals stumble, the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres would have to keep stubbing their toes, as well.
Here’s a look at the wild-card contenders in a mostly uninspiring race going into Wednesday night’s games:
When the Cardinals acquired veteran lefties Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the trade deadline, 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 see-saw Tuesday night against the New York Mets, and control their fate.
Record: 75-69, lead the second wild card by a half-game.
Playoff odds: 31.4%, according to Fangraphs
Why they might make it: They are the best defensive team in the majors, with past Gold Glove winners at catcher (Yadier Molina), first base (Paul Goldschmidt), and third base (Nolan Arenado), and perhaps a future winner in center field (Harrison Bader). Molina and 40-year-old ace Adam Wainwright ooze playoff experience and leadership. If any of these flawed teams can be trusted to seal the deal in the final weeks, it’s probably the Cardinals.
Why they might not: The schedule isn’t an ally. After a ginormous three-game series at home this weekend against the Padres, the Cardinals play their final 14 games against the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs would love nothing more than to dash their archrival’s playoff hopes, while the Brewers are ramping up for the playoffs. Imagine the Phillies playing only the Mets and Braves down the stretch, and you get the idea.
A 22-12 second-half surge, powered by Joey Votto’s revival, turned out to be unsustainable. The Reds seemed poised in late August to run away with a wild-card spot and maybe even make the Brewers sweat atop the NL Central. Instead, they have come back to the pack, dropping 11 of their last 15 games.
Record: 75-70, half-game back
Playoff odds: 36.2%
Why they might make it: Jesse Winker, the Reds’ No. 2 hitter and one of the more underrated offensive players in the game, is close to returning from a strained rib-cage muscle that has sidelined him since the middle of August. It should help, too, that eight of their last 17 games are against the pitiful Pirates. Even after losing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, the Reds are 9-2 against them this season.
Why they might not: Votto, who sparked some midsummer MVP chatter, has cooled considerably, batting .172/.321/.344 over his last 21 games. Although Luis Castillo has pitched better lately, he has been the Reds’ version of Aaron Nola. In a rotation filled with No. 3-4 types, Wade Miley has been Cincinnati’s most consistent starter.
Remember when it was a foregone conclusion that the NL West would have three teams in the postseason? The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers have held up their ends as the two best teams in the league. But the Padres have collapsed like a sandcastle at high tide. They were 66-49 on Aug. 10. Since then, they are 8-21.
Record: 74-70, one game back
Playoff odds: 23.8%
Why they might make it: Fernando Tatis Jr. is the best all-around player in the league, and since he returned from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for two weeks, he has started 25 consecutive games. As sidekicks go, it doesn’t get much better than Manny Machado. The Padres were supposed to ride their starting pitching to the playoffs. Instead, they’ll need their two best hitters to lead the way.
Why they might not: Let us count the reasons, from Jake Cronenworth’s fractured finger and Blake Snell’s groin injury to an unforgiving schedule that includes eight games against the Giants and three apiece against the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Braves.
When is a mediocre team just a mediocre team? How about when its record is at .500 or within one game in either direction after 69 of 144 games.
Record: 72-72, three games back
Playoff odds: 14.3%
Why they might make it: Because they play seven games in a row at home next week against the Baltimore Orioles and Pirates, who are a combined 90 games under .500. Of course, we are talking about the Phillies here. They got swept last month in Arizona and dropped three of four last week to Colorado. Clearly, they don’t accept scheduling gifts.
Why they might not: Rhys Hoskins is out for the season after lower-abdominal surgery; J.T. Realmuto has a sore shoulder; Andrew McCutchen doesn’t hit righties anymore; Didi Gregorius is having the worst year of his career; every fifth day is a bullpen game; the Phillies are 29-41 in the last three Septembers (.414 winning percentage). Need we go on? Oh, and missed opportunities to gain ground have left them needing help from other teams. It isn’t impossible, but the odds are stacked against them.
After taking two out of three last weekend from the crosstown Yankees, they seemed to have momentum for the first time since June. Then they lost back-to-back games at home to the Cardinals. The Phillies have a chance to put the Mets away this weekend at Citi Field.
Record: 72-74, four games back
Playoff odds: 3.4%
Why they might make it: There’s really no reason to believe they will, other than that it would fit in with the narrative of a chaotic season in Queens under new owner Steve Cohen.
Why they might not: Let’s be real: the Mets’ chances evaporated after Jacob deGrom threw almost certainly his last pitch of the season on July 7. Even if they survive the visit from the Phillies, they travel to Boston and Milwaukee next week. Thumbs down.