When you’ve wandered the desert for 10 years, the moment you arrive at an oasis surely matters less than simply finding it in the first place. Unless, of course, there are other challenges ahead. In that case, it’s best to take the most direct route to the water possible, swallow, and move on.
The Phillies, as you may know, haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years. A wild card is in their hands despite a four-game losing streak starting Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, the first game of the final homestand of the regular season. But with two weeks to go, it would be in their best interest to clinch the elusive playoff spot no later than Game 160.
» READ MORE: Phillies have shown they have ‘struggle’, which will be tested again during final stand at home
Otherwise, drinking from the oasis may quench their thirst, but won’t give them even the slightest chance of surviving the rest of the journey.
When it’s all over, after the wild-card series or the divisional round, later or (I gulp) sooner, a question will be raised: What constitutes a successful season for the Phillies? Was it enough to end the longest active postseason drought in the NL, if they end it at all? Or, given the club’s record payroll of $240 million and the accompanying luxury tax bill, did they need to do more?
Judging by the September crowds at Citizens Bank Park, it will take more than the prospect, even the probability, of a wild-card spot in an expanded playoff field to turn back the clock to 2011 and prove the Phillies are more than just third-place. . -best team in its own division.
There will be time to have that debate and include everyone from owner John Middleton to president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and even Bryce Harper. But the Phillies can speak loudly with their game for the next two weeks. Put a foot on the pedal and run people over, to paraphrase caretaker manager Rob Thomson’s July dictum, and they’ll prove that a place in the tournament isn’t enough. Keep things interesting down the stretch and, well, maybe they’ll be happy to get there.
Because advancing beyond the best-of-three wild-card series, whether it’s against the St. Louis Cardinals or the Atlanta Braves or even the New York Mets (all three road games), will require two things: One, Zack Wheeler must to be healthy; two, Wheeler and Aaron Nola should start the first two games.
There will be more clarity on Wheeler’s status on Wednesday night. He is expected to return from the disabled list and face the Blue Jays in his first start since Aug. 20. (More on that in a bit.) If he makes the remaining starts on his turn, the right ace would pitch again the next Tuesday. night in Chicago and Oct. 2 in Washington before lining up to start Game 1 of the wild-card series with regular byes on Oct. 7.
» READ MORE: Phillies’ JT Realmuto is dominating the bases like no other player in baseball
Nola is scheduled to start Friday night at home against the Braves and Sept. 29 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. His next start would be Oct. 4 at Houston, the penultimate game of the season.
If it’s anything more than what baseball folks call “touch and feel,” a glorified bullpen session in a meaningless game against an Astros powerhouse that will have the top seed in the American League sewn up by then, Nola wouldn’t be. available to start on regular bye until Game 3 of the wild card series. That’s assuming the Phillies don’t get ejected by then or don’t pressure him with three days’ rest in Game 2.
(Nola has never started on less than four days’ rest, even though he has made more starts than any other pitcher in baseball since 2018.)
And before anyone argues that the Phillies would be better off not letting Nola and his career 4.47 ERA in September/October get any closer to a playoff series, consider this: The Cardinals, led by two MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, are slugging .472 with an .821 OPS against left-handed pitchers, compared to .411 and .732 against righties; the Braves, with Ronald Acuna Jr., Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson, also have a great right-handed lineup.
So what are the Phillies’ chances of putting a bow on a wild-card spot before Nola has to give them six or seven innings in Game 161?
Entering Tuesday night, they led the Milwaukee Brewers by 2½ games (3½, including the tiebreaker) for the final wild-card spot. Any combination of 14 Phillies wins and Brewers losses (out of a total of 27 games between Tuesday and Oct. 4) would remove the champagne before Nola takes the mound.
» READ MORE: Nola has seen it all with the Phillies, except the playoffs. After eight years, she wants to join in the fun.
Realizable? Maybe. But only if the Phillies play better against good teams. Toronto was 19 games over .500 entering Tuesday; Atlanta, coming to town for four games starting Thursday night after sweeping the Phillies last weekend, was up 37 points. The Phillies played only 15 games against winning teams since the All-Star break and were 5-10.
A solid return from Wheeler would help settle stomachs. When the Phillies placed him on the disabled list in late August, Dombrowski said the ace would miss just two starts. He became five because of elbow inflammation.
The Phillies have been coy about how many pitches Wheeler will throw against the Blue Jays. He threw about 55 pitches, including warm-ups, in a simulated game Friday in Atlanta.
» READ MORE: ‘Philly Rob’ made a difference for the Phillies, and history shows it’s a remarkable feat
“It will be shorter at first,” Wheeler said last week. “As long as I have 90 pitches and seven innings by the time the playoffs come around, I’ll be fine.”
The Phillies have always thought of it that way. From the beginning, team officials maintained that the club could be dangerous in the postseason if Wheeler and Nola can start Games 1 and 2.
It’s up to the Phillies now to make that happen by treating the season like it’s 160 games, and not a single day more.