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Phillies’ playoff push: Has Bryce Harper clinched MVP? Is Joe Girardi’s job safe?

The Phillies enter the final two weeks of the season with lots of questions. Our writers weigh in on what might be ahead.

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper reacts after hitting an RBI-double against Chicago Cubs pitcher Manuel Rodriguez during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper reacts after hitting an RBI-double against Chicago Cubs pitcher Manuel Rodriguez during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)Read moreMatt Slocum / AP

Bryce Harper ran down the Phillies’ to-do list for the week.

“We’re going to have to take it game by game and just really understand what we’re doing as a team,” Harper said Sunday night after a downer of a 3-2 loss to the Mets in New York. “Score runs, don’t take anyone for granted, pitch well, play well ...”

Wait, rewind.

Don’t take anyone for granted. That’s the theme this week with the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates coming to town for seven games in the final homestand of the season. The Phillies trail the division-leading Atlanta Braves by two games in the National League East and can’t afford to play down to an opponent, as they did in last month’s sweep in Arizona or recently in losing three of four at home to the Colorado Rockies.

It’s shaping up to be a photo finish, but only if the Phillies do what they’re supposed to against a couple of tomato cans.

Inquirer baseball writers Scott Lauber and Matt Breen are here to discuss another important week for the Phillies.

How many wins do the Phillies need against the Orioles and Pirates?

Scott Lauber: Can I say seven? The O’s and Bucs have the second- and fourth-worst records in baseball, respectively, are a combined 92 games under .500 overall and 57 under on the road. They were built to lose, and they have lost impressively. Baltimore is on pace for 110 losses, Pittsburgh 101.

» READ MORE: Bryce Harper says he doesn’t know his stats, but here are five that make him an MVP favorite

But they are still major league teams (sort of), and as pitcher Kyle Gibson cautioned Sunday night, they may be motivated spoilers. So, it’s probably unfair to expect the Phillies to go 7-0, especially with bullpen games on tap Tuesday night and Sunday. Anything less than 5-2, though, would be unacceptable. It’s not like the Braves have a tough week either, with four games in Arizona (48-101) and three against the feuding Padres in San Diego.

Matt Breen: Winning all seven would be ideal, but I think they need to go 6-1 this week. I know that’s a lot but that’s what a team needs to do if it wants to chase down a playoff spot. Atlanta is playing four games this week against Arizona and three against the Padres, who seem to be falling apart. The Phillies won’t make up much ground if they simply tread water this week. They have to put pressure on the Braves and hope that they’re even or ahead on Tuesday when they open a three-game series Atlanta. Going 6-1 this week would do the trick.

Has Harper clinched the NL MVP award?

SL: There’s a reason why MVP ballots aren’t due until the last day of the season. It’s a six-month, 162-game award. But some years you know an MVP when you see him on Sept. 20, and this feels like one of those years.

Harper’s numbers dwarf all other candidates, including erstwhile frontrunner Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres. Harper also has been there every day for 58 games in a row (and counting) in the midst of a playoff race. His signature game came last Thursday, with two doubles, a homer, two walks, and four RBIs to pull the Phillies out of a 7-0 hole in a 17-8 rout of the Chicago Cubs.

That’s what an MVP does.

MB: Yes, but a lot can happen in the final two weeks of the season. As of now, Harper’s numbers are easily the best in the race, but what happens if Tatis has a torrid end to the season and pushes the Padres into the playoffs? That’ll be worth some votes. Harper seems like the MVP, but the best way to win it would be getting the Phillies into October. Stay tuned.

Which offseason need has become more apparent during the playoff push?

SL: Tell me again how it’s possible that a team with a payroll north of $200 million lacks the pitching depth to avoid a bullpen game every fifth day. There may not be a bigger indictment of former general manager Matt Klentak than that.

But with Freddy Galvis and Ronald Torreyes starting most games down the stretch, it’s worth wondering who will play shortstop and third base in 2020. The Phillies thought Didi Gregorius and Alec Bohm would hit over their defensive shortcomings. They were among the worst hitters in the league. It’s a problem without a clear solution.

MB: Who’s playing left field in 2022 and could that player bat behind Harper? The Phillies are missing lineup insurance this month with Rhys Hoskins on the injured list, but he’s usually batting ahead of Harper. They need another power bat to hit fourth, which would slide J.T. Realmuto to fifth. The Phillies still believe Bohm is a third baseman, so next season’s left fielder would likely have to be acquired this winter. Nick Castellanos is having a great year for the Reds and can opt out of the final two years of his deal. He’s a right fielder but could handle left. Imagine him batting behind Harper.

Is Girardi’s job safe?

SL: Only ownership can answer that, and we haven’t heard publicly from John Middleton since last October.

Here’s what we know: Middleton has great admiration for most people who own a World Series ring. Girardi has four, including one as a manager. After the Phillies hired two-time champion Dave Dombrowski last winter, Middleton said in a statement, “Between David and Joe Girardi, we now have two of the best people in place to set us on the path back to where we want to be, and that is the postseason and contending for world championships.”

Middleton brought in Girardi for his winning pedigree and would have to fall out of love quickly to fire him with one year left on his contract. Besides, how many managers will the Phillies discard before they realize the problem is the roster, not the person running it?

» READ MORE: Top prospect Bryson Stott’s big season marked by homers at double A and dinners with Bryce Harper

MB: I think so, but check back in two weeks. Girardi is under contract for next season and the Phillies are already paying a lot of people to not work in 2022. The only way I don’t see Girardi returning is if the Phillies finish the season with a brutal collapse. But I think they’ll stay in the race and Girardi will return even if they miss the playoffs.

Speaking of Middleton, let’s remember what he said after firing Gabe Kapler: “Those September collapses, I kept bumping up against them. I couldn’t get comfortable or confident enough that if I brought him back we wouldn’t run into other problems and therefore I made the decision I did.”

Has Giradi he been perfect? Of course not. But remember that Sunday night his starting lineup included Torreyes at third base, Galvis at shortstop, and Matt Vierling in center. I don’t think anyone expected those three to have a role in a playoff push, but here we are.