Bryce Harper’s 2021 season has been excellent. The Phillies’ 2021 season has been, overall, decent. Can the team elevate to their biggest star’s level and finally return to the Postseason? (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Phillies Set For Thrilling Final Month, No Matter Its End: 7th-Day Stretch

It’s another September in Philadelphia, and at least on the diamond, both nothing and everything is the same. The Phillies are so incredibly close to returning to the Postseason for the first time in 2011, and everyone can feel it. They are also so incredibly close to a fourth straight year of the same bitter failure that has become so familiar to the fanbase, it’s almost comforting. After all, this is a franchise known for failure; the current ten-year drought, the second-longest active such streak in the Majors, is tied for the fifth-longest in their 139-year history. Whatever happens next won’t change that label, but a start’s a start. The next month will be exciting, and it will also be terrifying. It’s largely what we expected all along, yet its transformation from projection into reality is incredibly unnerving.

Few teams can handle adversity better than the Phillies; maybe that’s because they always seem to be dealing with it. Over the last two weeks, they officially acknowledged premature endings to Zach Eflin and (for the second straight year) Rhys Hoskins’s seasons. That’s their “1C” starter and a lineup heartbeat if you’re keeping score at home. They’re not even the only ones to suffer such a fate; JoJo Romero and Roman Quinn have been lost to injury for months now. Two days after losing Hoskins, they began a seven-game stretch where they scored at least seven runs, their longest since 1933 (what’s up, Chuck Klein?), sparking a six-game winning streak that cut into their standings deficit and restored hope to a fanbase in danger of losing it.

But dread is always lurking. That winning streak started with three straight wins over the Diamondbacks, who had beaten the Phillies in each of their first four meetings of the season earlier that month. It ended with a sixth-inning meltdown/seven-run loss and heartbreaking eight-inning collapse to a Marlins team that is back to 2010s form in two ways: being last in the NL East, and torching the Phillies despite it. Aaron Nola bombed his first test of the month that has haunted his career the day prior, failing to record so much as an out in the fifth inning on Thursday. The bumbling Nationals arguably had more to do with the streak continuing than anything the Phillies did. There’s always something with this team, even if not especially when things are going right.

Yet the path to the Postseason is clear. The Phillies are currently two games behind both the Braves for first in the NL East and three behind the Reds for the second NL Wild Card. Winning the former is obviously preferable. But beggars can’t be choosers, and Phillies fans are obviously the former these days. This most recent winning streak reminded anyone who might’ve forgotten how well the Phillies can hit. Whether it’s MVP caliber performance from Bryce Harper or surprise contributions from young players like Rafael Marchan or Matt Vierling, the Phillies can score with the best of them. That pairs extremely well with an above-average rotation; one led by NL Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler and flanked by three more quality arms in Nola, Kyle Gibson, and Ranger Suárez. Just don’t ask who’s joining them.

Seriously, though, what an August it was for Bryce Harper. It’s only year three of his thirteen-year mega-deal, but it already feels like Harper has gone from full-circle. He was good in his first year, but most people outside of Philadelphia didn’t think he was good enough. It was a rare case of Philadelphia fans not being harsh on a star player who didn’t deliver the goods. He was even better in year two, but it felt like nobody noticed. A 10-home run performance in August that briefly pushed Harper’s OPS over 1.000 (he was the only player in the league at that mark for a while; he’s currently T-2 with Fernando Tatis Jr. at .998, just behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at 1.005) made Harper impossible to miss. There’s hardly anyone doubting his place among the game’s elite now.

Harper, J.T. Realmuto (despite a shoulder injury), and the aforementioned starters will be tasked with carrying the team for the next twenty-nine days. But they will need help, of course. Here’s some: nineteen of the Phillies’ final twenty-seven games are against teams currently at least ten games below .500. They’ll play the Braves team they intend to dethrone atop the division three times. The Phillies, of course, have not always taken as much advantage of these opportunities as they should. Perhaps the most intimidating aspect of their final twenty-seven games is that the Phillies will have to play in all twenty-seven of them. The Phillies of the last decade have often been their most difficult opponent; both in terms of the teams themselves and the baggage this drought has collected.

Reaching the Postseason isn’t a small feat for any team. For the 2021 Phillies, doing so would be almost too incredible to describe. Maybe it would be, in fact. The eight-game winning streak that started August brought back feelings people hadn’t experienced in a decade. If you were about as old as I was (9) the last time they came around, you probably didn’t remember you had ever experienced them all until that glorious weekend sweep of the Mets twenty-eight days ago. It was all a little overwhelming, but in the best way.

Here’s an inside look at another team that could halt the Phillies Postseason hopes; one of baseball’s weirdest but also hottest teams, the New York Mets.

Perhaps that moment ends up just like the four-game weekend sweep of Miami to start August 2018. Or Harper’s walk-off grand-slam in 2019. Or the team answering his call to win nine of ten in 2020. All were high-water marks of their respective seasons that nobody recognized as such at the time. There is only one type of climax in a regular season that is recognized as such when it happens. It has been 3,643 days since the Phillies last experienced it. It may be a long time before it happens again. But it also may happen at some point in the next twenty-nine days. It’s that hope that defines the wait; maybe this is the year it breaks through it.

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