Bryce Harper has given the Phillies so much to celebrate, especially lately. But the party the Phillies have been building towards for nearly 3,700 days is all that matters right now. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

For Phillies, Expecting The Unexpected Just Might Work: 7th-Day Stretch

There is both no good and no bad place to start an article about what the final fourteen days of the 2021 MLB regular season might have in store for the Phillies; just starting one is a challenge itself. Being locked in a pennant race deep into September was a realistic if not optimistic outcome six months ago. The way the Phillies arrived here? Seems like more of a fever dream. The Phillies were 4.5 games behind the Mets on August 1, then won eight straight to build a two-game cushion in first. Then they lost 11 of 15, falling to 5.5 behind the Braves on August 26. A comeback from 6-0 down pushed a winning streak to six games and the team to within two games of first in the division on September 2.

Ten of their next thirteen were against teams significantly below .500. They lost eight of the first eleven, then won the last two on a walk-off passed ball after blowing two saves and erased a seven-run third inning with seven of their own in the fourth and ten more in the next four frames. Two more wins and several bitten-off fingernails later, the Phillies woke up on September 19 a single game behind Atlanta for 1st in the NL East.

They fell to two back with a loss and a Braves win on Sunday, but are still in control of their destiny thanks to a three-game series in Cobb County from September 28-30. It’s a script every Hollywood producer would throw out because it is just too unrealistic. But this is the Phillies’ reality, their foot firmly logged in the step of a door that seemed sealed shut just a few days ago. They are back, but also still a game back. Their work isn’t close to done.

It will take everything the Phillies have to exorcise the demons of the last decade in the next two weeks. Other than Zack Wheeler, the rotation has largely been inconsistent so far in September. It must be the team’s backbone. The Phillies have won several games because of and despite their bullpen this month. It may bend over the next two weeks, but it cannot break. Bryce Harper has been on a $330 million mission since the All-Star break. His production is gaudy, maybe even MVP-worthy, but needs help to reach its ultimate goal. Clutch sac flies (Freddy Galvis, Matt Vierling), bunt doubles (Odúbel Herrera), two-homer games (Jean Segura), friendly replay decisions (Didi Gregorius); the method doesn’t matter. September is where results trump process; even at 76-73, that shift probably works in Philadelphia’s favor.

The Phillies sought to improve their process last winter after missing the Postseason by one tantalizing game. One-hundred-and-forty-nine games have exposed flaws in their machine, just like everybody else’s. The Phillies are set to try and win three more games entirely with a bullpen just two blown saves away from tying the all-time single-season record. The Phillies have a 9.43 ERA in their first three of the variety. Remarkably, they are 2-1 in those games. They are 11th in the Majors in runs scored despite receiving less production from their top two lineup spots than almost anybody else. They have also set a franchise record with 10 lead-off home runs. And on Thursday, they became the first team in NL history to win by 9+ after trailing by at least 7.

For most franchises, one of these stats would define their season. For the Phillies, they are the latest markers of a year that feels more like Russian Roulette than baseball. They’re a team of convoluted contradictions that’s, if nothing else, capable of sustaining success for short periods. Maybe that’s not such a bad fit with less than ten percent of the regular season to play. If there is one thing not to question about this Phillies team, it’s their resilience. There have been so many games and moments, dating back to Opening Day, this season where they seemed out of it, only to fight back impressively. Joe Girardi preached urgency after the team lost three of four to Colorado last week, and the product has displayed that. Girardi’s work as manager has certainly not been flawless this season. But perhaps the motivational part of his performance goes a little underappreciated.

In a season defined by unpredictability and chaos, one thing is certain: there is no telling how these next two weeks will play out. Belief is a dangerous thing, but it also carries incredible potential. The prospect of the first red October in ten years is exhilarating. That dream has overwhelmed the Phillies each of the last three years; reaching for the stars in September only to end up seeing them. It’s been so long since the Phillies have been in the Postseason, it is difficult to remember how to write as if they will make it. But flipping memories into magic is worth trying, and that is why the Phillies and their fans carry on with cautious optimism. It isn’t the flashiest look to sport in September, but it’s far from the worst one.

This isn’t the season the Phillies were planning. But it might be the one they’ve hoped for. Every towering home run or mystical sprint around the base paths by Harper and friends restores a tiny bit of the belief the last nine years have constantly gnawed away at. Seemingly every pitch not thrown by Wheeler elicits a special fear reserved only for moments like these. It’s a difficult balancing act, which probably explains why it shifts so often. We all know that all that matters is where the seesaw stops on October 3 (unless… Game 163?); right now, we’re just trying to get a sneak peek as to where that may be. It’s how sports fans are wired, especially in Philly.

If nothing else, at least this title is aging well.

But maybe there’s something to just trying to sit back and enjoy the ride. There may not be much time left to do so. Or there may be just enough to satiate one of sports’ most demanding fanbases. All eyes will be on the Phillies this week. Hopefully, lots of them will be looking from the stands at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies have not been this close this late with fans able to attend since their last Red October in 2011. So much has changed since then. It would be crazy for the regular season’s ending, remembered now only by a lower-case letter in the standings and the faint taste of champagne, to remain the same. Good thing that’s what the Phillies do best.

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