Despite Bryce Harper’s best efforts, failure will be the defining word of the Phillies season for the 10th straight year, an unfathomable chasm of sadness and despair. (Casey Sykes/Getty Images/AFP)

Familiar Failure Marks Phillies Decade Of Darkness: 7th-Day Stretch

There is a reason why, at least for the last two months, I largely avoided talking about what would happen if the Phillies missed the Postseason. It isn’t because I didn’t expect this outcome; in fact, it’s just the opposite. This was always the most likely result. I knew if, and eventually, when, it would happen, that there would be plenty of time to dissect it, to analyze the heartbreak, or even just to sit in it for a little bit.

This feeling, as cold and dark as it is, almost has a familiar comfort to it by now, at least in Philadelphia. That is what happens when you experience the second-longest active Postseason drought in Major League Baseball. In less than a week, it could become the very longest if Seattle earns a Wild Card berth. I hope they make it. I wouldn’t wish this feeling on my worst enemy.

What separates this year’s agony from the previous three years isn’t anything drastic the Phillies did differently. They were an incredibly flawed team; a bit better than previous years, but still incredibly flawed. They are a team built to hit that sputtered out the lowest batting average against fastballs in the sport. Their bullpen seemingly had nowhere to go but up after being historically bad in 2020; instead, they were just historically bad in a different way in 2021. Outside of Zack Wheeler, the starting rotation was more inconsistent than incredible. Ranger Suárez was great, but he didn’t start a game until August. They completely ran out of depth. There just wasn’t enough in the tank.

They lost Rhys Hoskins to injury for the second straight stretch run, and this time Zach Eflin joined him. The Phillies were never supposed to be a great defensive team, but they were far worse than they hoped to be. They bought at the deadline, spent the fifth-most money of every team in baseball, and were in first place as late as August 15. When Zack Wheeler finished off a complete game shutout on August 8 in front of over 40,000 fans, the eighth straight Phillies win that doubled as a boost to their NL East lead, which topped out at two games, it all felt so real. That is why this hurts so much. Maybe it’s just recency bias, but it felt real in a way that it had not in a long, long time. Too real not to be real. Except, of course, it was.

The pain of this September, and the pitiful three-game series against the Braves in which the Phillies scored just six runs and trailed at the end of 25 of 27 innings, is amplified by what preceded it. The Phillies and Braves were neck-and-neck through four and half months in 2018, with both teams well ahead of schedule with their respective rebuilds. Ever since then, the Braves have consistently improved, while the Phillies have violently bounced from contention to catastrophe. They fell apart down the stretch in 2018. They never won more than four straight games in 2019. And they missed the Postseason last year in the cruelest fashion possible; all they needed was one more measly win. It cannot be understated how long of a time ten years is to run through hypotheticals.

It is what the Phillies are destined to do for at least the next month as they contemplate what could have been. The pain is furthered by just how everything around them seemed to fall apart, just not quite as much as the Phillies did themselves. The Braves won the division with 97 wins in 2019 and played at a 94.5-win pace in 2020. They will win no more than 89 games this year. Even at their worst level since 2017, they still ran laps around the Phillies’ best resistance efforts.

Despite losing their best player Ronald Acuña Jr. to a torn ACL in July, this week’s series against the Phillies could not have been more David vs. Goliath. Every Braves infielder has at least 27 home runs. Their outfield has produced despite losing Acuña and Marcell Ozuna mid-season thanks to a series of crafty trades. Their pitching held the Phillies to just 13 hits in their three most important games of the year. Atlanta was undoubtedly better in every facet. They aren’t the only threat moving forward, either. New York lost Cy Young lock and MVP candidate Jacob deGrom in July and fell apart no long after. The Mets being the Mets will not last forever, no matter how much it might seem that way. It may never get easier than this. And yet the Phillies still came up far too short.

This is because the Phillies always make it so hard on themselves. Bryce Harper is the only player with an OPS over .800; he finished the series hitless. There should be no shame in that for Harper; without his heroic, MVP-worthy performance over the last two months is the only reason this week even mattered. No one can carry such a significant percentage of the burden forever. Every single player the Phillies signed or traded for in the offseason underperformed. Between Brandon Kintzler, Chase Anderson, Matt Moore, Vince Velasquez, and Matt Joyce, the Phillies essentially lit $14.5 million on fire. Archie Bradley and José Alvarado were decent, but not the reliable set-up men the Phillies were hoping for. Didi Gregorius regressed from the team’s RBI leader in 2020 to below replacement level. Even J.T. Realmuto lost his Best Catcher in Baseball Mantle.

The Phillies structured their roster much more soundly in 2021 than a year ago but whiffed nearly every time they tried to fill a hole. It didn’t help that they received almost no help from their young talent. Alec Bohm fell off so drastically that Joe Girardi lost trust in him, leading to a demotion to Triple-A for over a month. Mickey Moniak, Adam Haseley, and Spencer Howard (traded to Texas in July) were all unable to run with prime opportunities. Nick Maton, Luke Williams, and Matt Vierling delivered short bursts of production, but their upside at the MLB level is likely limited. Scott Kingery may never see the Majors again.

The Phillies still have one of the worst farm systems in baseball. They have changed leadership there once again, but skepticism is warranted, if not logical until the Phillies show they can be better. Their owner’s actions speak louder than his (reported) words when it comes to the luxury tax. The only paths to baseball salvation are spending every dollar efficiently or fixing a century-long problem. Both, obviously, are incredibly daunting.

It is already so bad, and, realistically, it might get worse before it gets better. The Phillies will not have enough money to fill all of their holes this winter. They need, at minimum, two outfielders, multiple late-inning relievers (preferably including a set closer), and to restructure the left side of their infield. It is a monumental task, and there could not be more urgency. On Opening Day 2022, Harper will be 29 and Realmuto will be 31. Wheeler turns 32 in May. They are three of the very best at their position, but that will not last forever. Very few teams have what the Phillies do. So many have what the Phillies don’t. It is an incredibly agonizing way to field a baseball team, defined untapped potential and wasted opportunities.

For a fourth straight year, those are the main takeaways for the Phillies. The team is firmly in a new era right now, but it is painfully obvious right now that new is not the same as better. It is not the same as worse either, but sometimes it’s difficult to remember that. They are one of the biggest punchlines in sports, a franchise defined by failure in its past, exuding nothing but failure at the present, and consistently failing to develop a better future. Incredibly, this is only the fourth-longest Postseason drought in franchise history and not even the longest of the last thirty years. They say there is light at the end of the tunnel, but that feels irrelevant when the Phillies are seemingly in a bottomless pit.

The Phillies are a team where despair always finds a way. That does not mean there was no happiness in 2021. Just being able to watch part of the season in-person was an instant upgrade over the distant memories of 2020. The Phillies may just have the NL MVP and Cy Young winner, and it is best to simply enjoy that rather than thinking what else it could possibly require to create another Red October. There were moments of pure joy, incredible hype, and maybe even something resembling happiness. Just because they were far too fleeting does not mean they never existed.

Even in their darkest hour, the Phillies showed incredible resilience, nearly coming back in the 9th inning Tuesday and coming somewhat close to erasing a 5-0 deficit Thursday. In the end, they relied on that trait far too often. Joe Girardi was right to say the Phillies needed a miracle to make the Postseason yesterday afternoon. The problem was the Phillies had already used more than their fair share.

And so the wait drags on. With it, a generation of Phillies fans remain lost, unable to fathom what Postseason baseball looks, and more importantly, feels like. The potent excitement that those a little bit older than those, myself included, remains tantalizingly locked away. Corks remain in bottles of champagne across the city. The 50′ by 35′ bell in right-center field that should be as bright as can be this time of year remains dimmed. All that is to be found is the expected emptiness that continues to plague the Phillies, just as it has in nearly every other chapter of their extensive history. It is both more powerful and more numbing with each additional disappointment. That shouldn’t be possible, yet at this point, it is simply accepted; for after another 162-game dose, there is still nothing to challenge it.

Check out Brian Tann’s latest podcast for far happier times than these.

It is brutal. It is baseball. No, not baseball. Phillies baseball. That is what is brutal, and if you don’t believe that, there are over 3,600 days of evidence to prove you wrong. Case closed. Season over.

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