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June 17, 2019

Paul Hagen: Phillies can knock out two NL East hopefuls after important upcoming stretch

It’s as if Rocky I ended with Apollo Creed winning on a TKO in the third round. Or the Sopranos finished their meal at Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery that fateful evening, then all drove home and settled on the couch to watch a movie.

For all the build-up attached to the series that ended at Sun Trust Field in Atlanta on Sunday, there was a distinctly anticlimactic feel when the weekend was over. Even though the Phillies lost two of three to the first-place Braves, what did we really learn?

We already knew the Braves were a good team. Heck, they’re the defending National League East champions and had won 10 of 12 before the Phils checked into their Atlanta hotel. We already knew the Phillies middle relief was inconsistent and that Hector Neris probably wouldn’t finish the season without blowing a save. After being reminded of all that Friday night, we saw another demonstration on Saturday that this is a resilient bunch.

Getting pulverized, 15-1, in the finale proved little other than that the fifth spot in the rotation is a black hole that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. That’s significant but hardly a shock.

There may be a lot of green on the Phillies radar, but the storm hasn’t hit yet.

There are still about two weeks to go before the mathematical midpoint of the schedule is reached. It’s a horrible cliché, but there are still so very many games left to play. The Phillies came out of the weekend 2.5 games behind the Braves. Could have been better, could have been worse.

It’s sort of like two weeks ago that all the chatter was about how they had to prove they would hang with the Dodgers, the team with the best record in the league. They got swept. Life went on.

And yet. . .

It’s hard to escape the nagging notion that a reckoning is on the horizon. Not because of one mid-June series. That’s almost always an alarmist proposition. But a sense that the next few weeks could set a tone that will foretell how the remainder of the schedule plays out.

One thing is pretty clear. Manager Gabe Kapler told reporters after Sunday’s stink bomb that he believes his team hasn’t yet played up to its potential. He’d better be right. If he isn’t, anticlimactic is not the word that will be used to describe the reaction at the end of the year.

They’ve lost 10 of their last 16. They’ve had injuries. That’s baseball. Shake it off, because there are opportunities straight ahead. Starting Monday night at Nationals Park.

Between now and July 14, they’ll play 14 of their 23 games against the Nats and Mets. That’s two division rivals who are sitting on the fence between buying and selling before the July 31 trade deadline. If they can win enough of those games to convince them both to wave the white flag for 2019, on paper, the Braves would be their only competition to win the division.

Washington was expected to be in the thick of the race this season, but got off to a wretched 19-31 start. Since then, though, they’ve won 14 of 21.

Deciding whether to go for it or start rebuilding is always a fraught decision, but it’s especially complicated for the Nationals. Last year, general manager Mike Rizzo reportedly had a handshake deal that would have sent free agent-to-be Bryce Harper to the Astros that was vetoed by ownership. Harper, of course, ultimately left to sign with the Phillies.

This year, third baseman Anthony Rendon is clearly the Nationals best position player. He just turned 30. And he will be free agent at the end of the season.

The dilemma is that trading him would be a hugely unpopular move. So would letting him walk one year after Harper did. And the fact that he’s repped by Scott Boras suggests that he’ll almost certainly choose to test the market.

So if the Phillies can take care of business against the Nationals and push them into deciding that their only real option is to try to get value in return for Rendon now, that would certainly help clear one obstacle from their path to the postseason. There’s even some loose talk that if Rendon goes they might also make dominant right-hander Max Scherzer available. Bonus. And while it’s appears unlikely the Nationals would deal either star to the Phillies, the Marlins did trade catcher J.T. Realmuto in the division, didn’t they?

The Mets situation is a little more straightforward. They, too, expected to compete in the division. They, too, have a losing record. With slugger Yoenis Cespedes out for the year following ankle surgery, they, too, have to make the hard call on whether or not they have what it takes to have a realistic shot to get back in the race.

Again, then, if the Phillies can beat them enough times to convince them to unload, say, Zack Wheeler and more, it would seem to eliminate yet another team they have to worry about in the division. At that point, it would be last team standing between them and Atlanta.

Let’s not forget, either, that the Braves are dealing with significant bullpen issues of their own.

The Phillies need to play better. They need to get healthy. They’ll need to patch some holes before the deadline. Easier said than done. But still far more important to determining where a season that began with such high hopes eventually winds up.