The National League playoffs don’t begin until Wednesday, but for the Phillies, they will begin Friday night. Every game this weekend in Tampa Bay should carry the importance of a postseason contest as the Phillies must handle their business if they want to be still standing Wednesday.
But they’ll also need some help. They’ll enter Tropicana Field on Friday on the outside of the NL’s eight-team playoffs and will need someone ahead of them to slip in order to clinch a playoff berth.
It’s been nine years since the Phillies last reached the postseason. They won a franchise-record 102 games that season behind “The Four Aces.” It was supposed to be the start of something special. Instead, it was the start of a long postseason drought. Three days in Tampa will decide if the drought is over.
Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the regular season:
The Phillies begin the final weekend with Vince Velasquez pitching in what is almost a must-win game. He’s made three starts this month since returning to the starting rotation, posting a 4.30 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 14⅔ innings.
The Phillies have a chance Friday if Velasquez pitches the way he did against Toronto (one run in six innings), but they’ll be cooked if Velasquez gets chased in the fourth inning like he did against Miami. Manager Joe Girardi will likely treat Friday night like a playoff game and will have Velasquez on a short leash. Spencer Howard is expected to be activated from the injured list and should be in the bullpen.
Velasquez will be opposed Friday night by Charlie Morton, who made four starts for the Phillies in 2016 and could have returned as a free agent after the 2018 season. But the Phillies believed their internal options – Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eickhoff, and Velasquez – to be comparable talents at a cheaper price. Morton, who is making $15 million this season, was an All Star last season and has a 4.64 ERA this season in eight starts.
The Phillies will start Zack Wheeler on Saturday night and Aaron Nola on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies are 0-4 in their last four games started by Wheeler or Nola. The Rays have not announced starters for Friday and Saturday. But the Phillies will not see Blake Snell or Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay’s top two starters, after both faced the Mets this week.
Teams to watch
For the two wild cards, the Phillies have to keep an eye on the Giants, Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals. Gabe Kapler’s Giants are at home this weekend against the Padres. The Reds will be at the Twins and the Brewers will be at the Cardinals for five games in four days. For the division, the Phillies have to pass the Marlins, who are in New York for three games against the Yankees.
If the Phillies finish tied with Miami, the postseason berth will be awarded to the Marlins because of the teams' head-to-head record. The Marlins won seven of their 10 meetings this season.
If the Phillies finish tied for the wild card, the team with the better divisional record will advance to the postseason. The Phillies went 21-19 this season in their division, which gives them the same division record as the Reds. The Giants (18-18), Brewers (17-18), and Cardinals (19-16) finish their season with division games.
If the Reds and Phillies tie, the postseason berth will go to the Reds because they have a better record (12-8) in their last 20 divisional games than the Phillies (8-12).
Something to play for
All six NL teams competing for playoff spots are playing teams that are either already in the postseason or trying to get in. No one is playing a team that’s already looking to 2021.
But what motivation do the Rays and Yankees have as they face the Phillies and Marlins? The Rays, who clinched the AL East, still need to secure the first overall seed, which would allow them to face Toronto in the first round. The Yankees can finish only as high as fourth place, but their first-round opponent is yet to be decided.
Both teams will likely balance trying to win with also finding rest for their players before the AL playoffs begin Tuesday. The Twins, who are playing the Reds, still need to clinch their division, so finding motivation shouldn’t be hard.
The Cardinals and Brewers will be fighting for a playoff spot while the Padres, who are locked into the NL’s fourth spot, have almost nothing to play for against the Giants except trying to enter the postseason with momentum. The Giants could have an advantage.
If the Phillies win a wild card, they’ll enter the postseason as either the seventh or eighth seed. The seventh seed heads to either Atlanta or Chicago, while the eighth seed goes to Dodger Stadium. If the Phillies finish second, they could be the fifth or sixth seed, which will likely send them to either San Diego, Chicago, or Atlanta.
The postseason will not move to a bubble format until the second round, but teams have been quarantining this week in preparation for the bubble. The Phillies are confined to their hotel in Tampa except when they go to the ballpark. If they advance, they’ll travel straight to their next city without coming home. In that city, the same rules will apply.
The NL’s postseason bubble will be in Houston and Arlington, Texas, while the AL will stay in San Diego and Los Angeles. The World Series will be in Arlington. But that’s a ways away. The Phillies first have to get through the weekend.