The Atlanta Braves had not yet lost earlier this week, but the Phillies’ Bryce Harper was well aware that the division leaders were trailing in the ninth inning. He plays each night with his back to the out-of-town scoreboard at Citizens Bank Park. So he knew the Phillies had missed another chance to gain ground in the standings by dropping the series opener to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“We’re wasting time,” Harper said.
And now time seems to be running thin.
The Phillies started a four-game series Thursday night with Arizona facing a five-game deficit with 36 games to play. FanGraphs gives the Phillies a 16.7% chance to win the division, a sharp 40-point decrease since Aug. 9. The Phillies were then in first place by two games but lost 10 of their next 14 games while Atlanta soared.
The Phillies have the easiest remaining schedule in baseball based on opponents’ winning percentage. But the Cincinnati Reds, who lead them in the wild-card race, have a similar strength of schedule and Atlanta’s schedule lightens up after they play their next six games against the Dodgers and Giants. Plus, “easy” games have not been easy this season for the Phils.
“We have to pick it up,” Zack Wheeler said. “We had a good spell. We had a little bad spell. We’ve been talking about consistency the whole year. We just need to find that, especially down this last little stretch right here. It’s big, obviously. We know that. You guys know that. Everybody knows that. We just need to play some good baseball.
“I think that’s the biggest thing. It starts with us out there as starters setting the tone. Quick innings, all that type of stuff. Getting guys off their feet and just try to get some quick outs.”
The season’s final month is less than a week away and the Phillies will begin September in playoff contention. It’s been a decade since they reached October and to get back, they’ll have to stop wasting time. Here are five stats that show what the Phillies need to overcome if they are to beat the odds.
That’s the pace the Phillies need to play for the final 36 games if the Braves simply play .500 for the rest of the season. If the Braves go 18-18 , they’ll still finish with 86 wins. The Phillies need to play the rest of the way like the Dodgers (.630 winning percentage this season) and win 23 of their final 36 to reach 86 wins. Six times in franchise history, the Phillies have won exactly 23 of their final 36 games. The most recent instance was 2007 when they famously erased a seven-game deficit with 17 to play. That’s the kind of magic they need.
The Phillies have had 13 players register at least 25 plate appearances in the second half and only three of them have an on-base percentage better than the National League average of .323. Those 10 underperforming players — Jean Segura, Alec Bohm, Travis Jankowski, Luke Williams, Ronald Torreyes, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius, Brad Miller, and Andrew Knapp — have combined to slash .218/.292/.357 since the All-Star break. Rhys Hoskins (.770) and Harper (.667) are ranked first and sixth in the majors for slugging percentage in the second half, but that production could mean so much more if the rest of the lineup could get on base ahead of them.
The Phillies have 15 division games remaining, all of which are on the road where they have struggled this season. The Phils have a .571 winning percentage at home in 2021 and a .429 clip away from South Philly. And their lone non-division road series remaining is a three-game set in Milwaukee against the Brewers, who are on a 99-win pace.
That’s the Phillies’ record since the All-Star break when Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler pitch. The Phils are 13-10 since the break in games started by anyone else. Wednesday night’s 7-4 loss to Tampa Bay was the sixth straight start by Wheeler or Nola that ended in defeat. The Phillies are going to have to string together wins to chase down a playoff spot. And it’s hard to imagine that happening if they can’t win the games started by their best pitchers.
This is the fourth straight year the Phillies are entering the final month in playoff contention, and only four teams have a worse winning percentage (.384) over the previous three Septembers than the Phillies. The Phillies went 13-17 last September and lost seven of their final eight games to finish a game out of the playoffs. They have been knocking on the postseason door for four years, but they’ll have to change their September history for that door to finally open.