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Phillies, Braves Have Been Here Before; Who Prevails In 2021? 7th-Day Stretch

Ozzie Albies and the Braves have pulled away with the NL East crown each of the last three years. But the Phillies have closed some of that gap coming into the season’s final week, which features a three-game series in Atlanta between the two clubs. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Phillies, Braves Have Been Here Before; Who Prevails In 2021? 7th-Day Stretch

One hundred seventy-seven days ago, Bryce Harper heard the crack of the bat and raised his glove to shield the April sun. He was wearing sunglasses, but every bit of shady support helped. As his left hand reached up, his right hand pointed out, letting center fielder Roman Quinn know he had everything under control. Only 10,773 fans watched from the seats of Citizens Bank Park. But that was just because it was all the city of Philadelphia would allow. Harper squeezed the fly ball from Travis d’Arnaud just under fourteen years after the Phillies selected the latter 37th overall, two and a half years before the Phillies traded him for Roy Halladay, whose number was scheduled to be retired later in the year.

The Phillies had just swept the Braves on Opening Weekend 2021. Two of their victories were by one run; Opening Day even went to extras. Their bullpen, which had a second-worst in league history 7.06 ERA in 2020, recorded a 1.17 ERA that weekend. Adam Haseley and Quinn started the games in center field. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin allowed two runs in 20.2 innings. The defense made some excellent plays as well. Reigning NL Rookie of the Year co-runner-up Alec Bohm delivered the clutch tie-breaking RBI single in the eighth on get-away day. Minutes later, Héctor Neris allowed two runners to reach in the 9th before inducing that routine fly ball from d’Arnaud. After experiencing the ultimate heartbreak to end their 2020 season, 2021 could not have started on a better note.

Nine hundred twelve days ago, Neris was once again the mound in the ninth, this time with nobody on. Freddie Freeman, who would have represented the tying run, was sitting in the dugout with no expectations of being needed. He wasn’t. Johan Camargo hit a line drive to center field that barely asked Odúbel Herrera to move. The Phillies had just swept the Braves on Opening Weekend 2019. Owner John Middleton spent “stupid money” and jettisoned three players thought to be significant parts of the team’s future six months earlier. The first rewards were over 120,000 in attendance over the three-game series, two mammoth home runs for the sport’s then highest-paid player, and a statement made against the same team that won a war of attrition against a Phillies team that maybe wasn’t as good as they thought (and looked) six months earlier.

It felt like a new era had begun.

Maybe one did.

Three thousand six hundred fifty-three days ago, one of the last shining moments of the previous era unfolded. The Phillies played their part in one of the wildest days in MLB history by winning a thirteen-inning marathon at Turner Field. They were down 3-1 in the 7th. But a Jack Wilson error got them back in the game. Then Chase Utley flipped a sac fly to left field in the 9th off NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel to plate Pete Orr to tie it. The Braves stranded three runners in extra innings. A jam-shot squibber by Hunter Pence squirted out of the range of Dan Uggla in the top of the 13th, scoring Brian Schneider. Uggla walked with one out in the bottom of the frame, but Justin De Fratus induced a game-ending 3-6-3 double-play from NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Freeman.

The Phillies had just swept the Braves to conclude the 2011 regular season. The last victory was a franchise record 102nd, an achievement worth celebrating at the moment. In hindsight, the Phillies would do almost anything to give it back. Maybe if the Braves had the chance to play the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals in a 163rd game by winning once more, or winning the lone NL Wild Card spot outright by winning twice more, things wouldn’t have ended any differently. Instead, the Phillies went 12-6 against the Braves that year, including 6-0 in September. Maybe they would’ve taken it easier on Atlanta if they weren’t looking to reclaim momentum heading into October after losing eight of twelve following clinching a Postseason berth on September 14th. Ten years is a long time to run through hypotheticals.

This is the history the Phillies are chasing tonight, as they embark on a three-game crossroad in Atlanta. Technically, the Phillies will still be alive when they head to Miami on Friday if they win at least once. But almost every path to a Red October includes three victories this week at Truist Park, a stadium they are 15-22 at since it opened in 2017. It isn’t their biggest house of horrors, but tragedy has generally come before triumph for the Phillies in Cobb County.

Much has been made of the September shortcomings of this Phillies core, and for good reason. Both the Phillies and Braves overachieved through the first four months of 2018. Yet it was the Phillies, who were in a Postseason spot as late as August 20, who weren’t ready for their coming of age; a 17-34 freefall to end the year proved it. On paper, you could argue things weren’t too much bleaker at this point in 2019; the Phillies were six games out of a Wild Card spot on September 23 but were set to play five straight on the road against a Nationals team they were chasing for one of them.

If the Phillies had swept the series, they would’ve been one out with three to play. Instead, the Nationals won all five, then twelve more in October en route to their first World Series, bringing their former star’s Freudian slip to reality. There is so much to say about 2020. But all that needs to be said is the Phillies needed one more win to reach the Postseason. There is seldom a more agonizing sentence to remember a sports team by.

This is the history that is chasing the Phillies; and unfortunately, it has a fairly sizable head start on its aforementioned counterpart. Thirty thousand filled Citizens Bank Park, statistically likely for the final time in 2021, on Sunday. It was a good figure for this season’s standards, but pails at what everyone is craving. There are more reasons than the team’s performance for that number. But the statement it paints is a fanbase dreading what is starting to feel like inevitable pain. Everything they saw against the 58-98 Pirates that afternoon justified that belief.

That 6-0 loss combined with the Braves tight-roping to a victory in San Diego ate up almost all of the Phillies already microscopic margin for error, which is practically none for the next three nights. Neither team is anywhere close to full strength. But the Braves have made their make-shift squad work better and maybe even smoother than the Phillies, even though they acquired three outfielders in July to try to fill the void of Ronald Acuña Jr.’s ACL tear and Marcell Ozuna’s domestic violence arrest. It is the latest twist of a trend that has grown non-stop over the last three-plus seasons. Reversing it will take everything the depleted Phillies have to offer. It isn’t an optimal offer. But as they have so often this season, the Phillies will take and try to make the best out of it.

The excitement that would come from doing so would be palpable, but not all-encompassing. As long as the Phillies, a franchise with more losses than any other in professional sports, keep winning, they will be fine. It is easy to see the opposing forces in that statement. If things go the Phillies’ way, this series will not be their climax. Three more games await the Phillies in Miami, a place where twenty-eight teams would be salivating to visit with a Postseason berth on the line. The Phillies, of course, are the exception.

It would seemingly take a miracle, perhaps only one possible from harnessing and reversing the energy of a decade’s worth of demons, for it all to work out. Even that only guarantees a 163rd game tie-breaker; help from the Mets or Rockies is necessary for the Phillies to win the NL East within their current schedule. At least the potential play-in game would be in Philly, where maybe gloom can finally give way to the newest generation of fans that would just like to be able to watch highlights of a Phillies Postseason game on YouTube at 720p.

Game 163 itself isn’t technically part of a Red October. But it could be the means to it, and that means the Phillies are open to it. After all, the Phillies have made a habit out of taking the most convoluted path possible so often this season. It seems impossible that they are exactly as far back as they were on September 2. They were 4.5 back on September 14, one out on the 18th, one out away from being four behind on the 21st, then 1.5 out on the 25th. In a way, it almost makes Game 163, the statistically most improbable outcome, feel the most likely. This is what happens with a team that has a way of bending logic like Play-Dough. They should be so much better than this. They probably should already be eliminated. For now, Phillies fans are content with being in the middle.

But that appeasement ends the second Charlie Morton releases tonight’s first pitch. With a Wild Card tragic number of one, being first place in the NL East at the season’s end is the only realistic happy ending. The closest they have been to that feat in the last ten years isn’t reflected in the standings. For one thousand one hundred and two days ago, a new era began in Atlanta. All it took was Acuña hauling in a routine fly ball from Maikel Franco with the Braves up two with two out in the top of the ninth on a Saturday afternoon in the same ballpark that the teams will be playing at in just a few hours.

That one catch could not have more clearly symbolized Atlanta’s home-grown core sprinting past the Phillies’ in every facet. They have lapped them in the years that have followed; but the symbolism is so strong because, with that catch, the Braves clinched the 2018 NL East title, reaching the Postseason for the first time in five years. They did the same each of the next two seasons. All the Phillies have done that in that span is slink away in sadness.

Here’s to this being the defining quote of the 2021 Philadelphia Phillies: “This isn’t the season the Phillies were planning. But it might be the one they’ve hoped for.”

One day later, Atlanta won again, and the Braves swept the Phillies to further display their dominance. It lit a spark the Braves have maintained up to this day. The Phillies have been consumed with trying to snuff it for the same period. Revenge is a dish best served cold, though it will be in the mid-80s all week in Atlanta. But the Phillies have more experience at making sub-optimal conditions work, if only briefly, than almost anyone. In the context of a six-month season, eight days (the maximum amount of time left in the regular season, accounting for that hypothetical Game 163) is just that: brief. The lasting impact of it will not be. There is nothing left to do but play and hope that instead of occurring again, this is when agony ends.

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