September 15, 2023
The Braves series was brutal.
Multiple rallies and heroics to keep the Phillies in it, only for them to slip away in three out of the four games, and in the end, result in a division pennant-clinching celebration on their field for an NL East rival closing in on well over 100 wins.
You can feel how you want about that, plus the congratulations message to Atlanta on the left-field scoreboard after all of it, but it won't make a lick of difference in the end.
Because the only solution to stopping that is to play better, and the reality is that the NL East was decided a long time ago. The Wild Card race is the Phillies' true focus, and with 16 games left and a slate of opportune opponents due up, putting together a late hot streak – as well as trying to iron out lingering issues quickly – is going to be crucial.
The Phillies surged through August while hitting a record amount of homers to build up a nice lead over the Cubs, Giants, and Diamondbacks for the top spot in the NL Wild Card chase. But since the calendar turned to September, just like last year, they've stumbled.
They're 5-8 through the month so far entering Friday night's series out in St. Louis, having dropped critical sets to the Brewers, Marlins, and aforementioned Braves. The bats aren't so much of a concern right now, as any of Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, and on down can swing you back into a game in an instant, but questions surrounding the pitching are only growing greater as the number of games remaining shrink.
Aaron Nola has the nod Friday night to kick off the weekend series against the Cardinals. Which Aaron Nola is he going to be? – i.e. can he be the No. 2 starter the Phillies need him to be the rest of the way and into the playoffs?
What should the rest of the rotation look like behind him and Zack Wheeler (who isn't coming off his greatest outing against Atlanta) at the top? Should Taijuan Walker, whose velocity has varied wildly all season, stay in the No. 3 spot? Is Ranger Suárez, as the lefty, finally regaining his best stuff now that he's back from injury? Do you stick with Michael Lorenzen after he's struggled mightily since his no-hitter? Has Cristopher Sánchez earned himself a shot in the potential playoff rotation at this rate?
And when it comes to the bullpen, how confident are you in anyone not named Jeff Hoffman right now?
Entering Friday, the Phillies have a 79-67 record overall, a 1.5-game lead up on the Cubs for the No. 1 Wild Card seed, and a 4.0-game gap separating themselves from San Francisco, Arizona, and a Cincinnati club still hanging in there in the rest of the hunt.
The latest stretch, and its struggles, have been far from ideal – the Phils are 4-6 in their last 10 – but they're still in relatively good shape, with relatively weaker opponents in the Cards, Pirates, and Mets remaining that they can really pounce on to close out the regular season and clinch their playoff spot with.
Plus, they'll get one more shot against the Braves down in Atlanta early next week in a series that can send a message for October if the Phillies can rebound and find a way to get to them.
Because more than likely, both will be there in the dance and could very well see one another again along the way to a fight to get back to the World Series. It happened last year, after all, and nobody forgot about it. Not Atlanta, and definitely not Philadelphia.
They're nearly there, but in no way a guarantee yet either. There's still work to do, and things to iron out.
“We want it to be a different September,” Schwarber told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki after the Atlanta series. “I don’t think we want it to be a September where we’re losing, and we’re trying to find a way. We want to flip the script and make sure that we’re going to be taking care of business and playing our game. The signs are there. Everything is there.”
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