Remember when the Phillies were double-digit games out of a playoff spot? It’s not like it was all that long ago.
And it’s not like feasting on the last place Rockies and Marlins to the tune of a 6-game sweep and a seven game win streak (the Phillies also beat the Reds on the road before this perfect homestand) was unexpected.
It’s more like the free fall by the Cardinals — the Phillies’ playoff nemesis last season — has come from nowhere.
Two weeks ago, we weren’t counting the Phillies completely out, but acknowledged they’d have to play about .800 ball the rest of the way just to have a shot. That was based on the team needing to finish with at least 88 wins and maybe as many as 90 — which was reasonable given the recent history of the 5th overall team in the National League.
Instead, the Cardinals sit at 75-68, just 7 games over .500 and the Phillies are just 3 games behind them, and with a winning record for the first time since June 3. Even if the Cardinals stop the bleeding, it’s reasonable to think that 86 wins ought to to it – and it may even go as low as 85 or 84.
Before we get overly euphoric, the Phillies still have the Dodgers and Pirates ahead of them – and the Brewers even and Diamondbacks just behind them. It will still take a 14-5 finish to get to 86 wins. But that’s still better than needing a 16-3 or 18-1 finish.
Second wildcard a blessing, part I: One major reason behind the second wildcard was to elevate the importance of winning a division – something the Phillies had done 5 times in a row coning into this season. Conventional wisdom was that the way the Cardinals took advantage of their hot finish and a short series to beat a 102-win team should not happen quite so easily this season, with a one-game play-in being a prerequisite to getting to the NLCS.
As it now turns out, it’s the Phillies who are happy to have an extra round of playoffs — not to wait on their opponent and watch them burn a top pitcher in a play-in game, but rather to give them any hope at all of living to see the NLCS (and perhaps beyond) in 2012.
Second wildcard a blessing, part II: Not that it matters, but if there were still only one wildcard, the Phillies would be 8.5 games behind the Braves for the wildcard and on the verge of getting eliminated for the NL East crown (Nats’ magic number is 3 relative to the Phillies).
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but … thank you, Bud Selig
How did they get here? As described, it’s been as simple as winning a lot and watching the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates (especially the Cardinals) lose a lot.
Jimmy Rollins has tallied a hit in all but one game in September, hitting .310 for the month so far, with 3 HR, 7 RBI and 6 runs scored in 10 games.
John Mayberry Jr. has been on a more extended tear, after a dreadful start to the season. Since Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were dealt, Mayberry has hit 6 homers and driven in 16 runs in 6 weeks, hitting just under .300 in that span.
Chase Utley, who most people wrote off as a power hitter, had connected for 10 HR, 30 RBI in 63 games since his return from a chronic knee injury. Not to be outdone, Ryan Howard also has 10 homers – in 56 games – to go with 40 RBI.
Erik Kratz has been a revelation behind the plate, almost certainly earning himself a backup job behind Carlos Ruiz in 2013. But right now, with Ruiz still working his way back from injury, Kratz’s 9-24-.263 line in just 118 at bats (with only 40 MLB at bats coming into this season) is phenomenal for a 32 year old rookie. Kratz has also earned high praise from his pitchers for his abilities as a catcher.
On the mound, Kyle Kendrick has won 5 of his last 6 starts, lowering his ERA from 4.86 to 3.83 in the span of less than a month. The Phillies have also won Cliff Lee‘s last 5 starts, with Lee earning 3 of the wins and lowering his ERA from 3.78 to 3.36 in the process. Tyler Cloyd has looked better than the injured Vance Worley, just as Kendrick has almost certainly pitched better than Joe Blanton would have here. In fact, Blanton is 1-4 with a 6.26 ERA since joining the Dodgers.
In the pen, not only does Jonathan Papelbon have 34 saves and a 2.44 ERA, Josh Lindblom, Phillippe Aumont and Antonio Bastardo have all recorded saves in the last few weeks because the Phillies have been leading or close late so much that Papelbon has been unavailable to close on a few occasions.
Road warriors: The Phillies’ stretch of 13 games against teams with losing records (and 10 in a row against the three last-place teams in the NL) continues with 4 games in Houston. Despite the Astros’ MLB-worst 45-98 record, Phillies fans still remember (and cringe) when thinking of what the Astros did to the Phils’ slim playoff hopes in 2005 and 2006. The road trip then moves to New York for 3 games with the Mets, before the Phils’ last homestand against the playoff-bound – but perhaps ready to relax — Braves and Nationals.
One thing is for sure … the Phillies are fun to watch, and now – with our lowered expectations — are playing with the house’s money.
So don’t bet against them.