The release of the NFL schedule, which will likely occur next month, is an event. Fans and media immediately comb through each week trying to predict the outcome of games that will not be played for months and are sure to be impacted by injuries and other unforeseen circumstances. It’s a useless exercise, but, according to my stomach, so are sit-ups and I keep doing them, too.
The release of the baseball schedule, on the other hand, is treated with benign neglect. Only a fool would try to analyze 162 games in advance and you’d need a yearlong pandemic to have the time anyway. In a quirk caused by COVID-19, this year’s baseball schedule was revealed before last year’s shortened 60-game season started, so there was even less reason than usual to take a closer look at the 2021 schedule when it first was posted.
Now, however, with the start of the regular season just three weeks away, it is worth examining the Phillies’ schedule, especially since they will immediately be diving into the deep end of the pool by playing their first 13 games against the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. It starts April 1 against the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
The Braves, of course, have won the last two National League East titles and even though the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections have them slipping in 2021, the oddsmakers still consider them the division favorite. Since the middle of the Atlanta order features National League MVP Freddie Freeman, young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. and slugger Marcell Ozuna, the belief here is that the oddsmakers are more in the know than PECOTA.
The Mets, meanwhile, are the PECOTA pick to dethrone Atlanta. In fact, their projected 93 wins are the fourth most in baseball behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and the New York Yankees. This is for sure a playoff-or-bust season for the Mets under first-year owner Steve Cohen.
Regardless of where the Braves and Mets finish, the fact the Phillies have a steady diet of those two teams at the start is brutal. Welcome to 2021. You better not fall too far behind too early.
Bryce Harper welcomes the challenge.
“Of course, yeah, you have to want it because you have to play them anyway,” the Phillies right fielder said during a recent Zoom call. “I think when you do face those guys it’s going to be very tough, but also you’re going to have to go out and play in L.A. for the first time in over a year. I think we’re playing the A.L. East again this year, so that’s a tough division as well.”
All true, but the Phillies’ schedule out of the starting gate is arguably the most difficult in baseball. The Phillies are one of only two teams that have to play two division opponents home and away over the first four series, but the Chicago Cubs’ opponents — Milwaukee and Pittsburgh — are far less daunting than the Braves and Mets.
Washington’s opening four-series stretch — home against the Mets and Braves and away against the Dodgers and Cardinals — is also difficult.
“We know that our division is going to be extremely tough,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s a challenge and it kind of gives us a chance to see where we are at (early), but even after those four series, we have a long, long way to go. The big thing is that we’re ready to go when we leave spring training and guys feel good about where they are at. The hitters have to feel good about their swings and the pitchers have to feel good about where they are at and we go compete.”
The season won’t be won or lost in the first two weeks. The Nationals proved two years ago that you can overcome an awful (19-31) start and still win the World Series. That, however, is not the advisable way to go about the business of winning the division.
Harper and Girardi are correct that the season will still be young when they are through with their first 13 games. They will still have 12 games left with the Mets and 13 with the Braves. As difficult as the trip to L.A. will be against the Dodgers, it’s one that every other team in the N.L. East will also have to make.
All interleague matchups against the A.L. East, on the other hand, are not created equal. If predictions hold to form, the Phillies could be fortunate in that regard because they will play a total of six games against Boston, which finished last in the A.L. East a year ago and figures to still be rebuilding in 2021. Only Washington, which has six games against Baltimore, has an easier natural A.L. East rival on paper. The Mets, as always, will play six games against the Yankees. Miami must play six against Tampa Bay and Atlanta will play six games against a tough Toronto team.
In addition to their six games against the Red Sox, the Phillies will play two games each home and away against the Yankees, three games at home against Baltimore, three games at Tampa Bay and three on the road against the Blue Jays.
The Phillies haven’t had a problem starting the season in recent years. Their problem has been finishing. Over the last three seasons, they are 156-142 before September and 33-53 during the final month of the season, which is why their playoff drought stands at nine seasons. The good news about the 2021 schedule is that if the Phillies can remain in contention into September, a total of 14 of their final 23 games are against Colorado, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Miami, four teams PECOTA projects to finish last in their respective divisions.
It all starts, however, with a wicked hard stretch against the Braves and Mets.