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September Is Once Again Destroying The Phillies

9:03 AM EDT on September 30, 2022

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

What a chaotic season the Philadelphia Phillies have had. General manager Dave Dombrowski assembled the most expensive roster in team history, including a high-powered offense-only lineup seemingly intended to answer the question, "What if you built an entire team out of left fielders and first basemen?" The early returns were uninspiring and then got worse, and on June 3 Dombrowski fired manager Joe Girardi, with the Phillies sitting at 22–29 and 12 games out of first place in the NL East. They immediately won 14 of 16, then spent the bulk of the remainder of the summer playing like a contender (albeit one with an amusing habit of throwing the ball all over the yard), and woke up September 15 a season-best 18 games over .500, nipping at the heels of the uninspiring San Diego Padres and holding a comfortable 4.5-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers for the final NL wild card.

It was here, poised just three weeks and a couple series wins from securing a playoff berth, that everything started going to shit. Over the course of 15 days the Phillies have dropped 10 of 13 games, and have seen their entire lead over the not exactly surging Brewers evaporate. Thursday night they were shut out* by the lousy Chicago Cubs, to finish off a brutal sweep in a series the Phillies expected and needed to win. This was, ah, not an encouraging performance:

This was in fact the second fly ball lost in the sun by Brandon Marsh in Philadelphia's last four games. It's been that kind of a run for the Phillies, who have the shell-shocked, fuzzy-eyed disengagement of a team that senses its season sliding away but feels powerless to stop it. In the second inning Thursday Jean Segura lost track of the count while standing on first base, was misled by some shoddy scoreboard work at Wrigley, mistook an inside pitch for ball four, and was caught "stealing" when in fact he just started moseying toward second base. “I just saw on the scoreboard, 3-1, and when I looked it was actually number four on the board, so I thought it was ball four,” Segura said after the game. “It was my mistake.”

The dreary loss wrapped up a series in which the Phillies had 30 baserunners in three games and scored three total runs. The Phillies are now a half game up over the Brewers in the standings with a tiebreaker in hand, which is nice but is also a far cry from what this team was built to do, which was challenge for the NL East crown. Their magic number, with seven games remaining on the schedule, is seven. For reasons passing understanding, the Phillies are simply incapable of performing well in September: According to Jayson Stark, over the last five seasons the only National League team with a worse September record than the Phillies is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who I don't mind telling you I have forgotten even exist multiple times since their last playoff appearance, in 2017. Incidentally, it's been twice as long since the Phillies last appeared in the postseason.

Philadelphia's near misses have been uniformly excruciating. Last season they rode a late five-game win streak to within a game and a half of the eventual World Series-champion Atlanta Braves with just over a week to go, then promptly dropped six of seven to close the season. In the pandemic shortened 2020 season they needed two wins in their final eight games to secure a playoff berth, and lost seven of them, including a crushing season-ending shutout in Tampa. It's actually against federal law to feel any sympathy for Philadelphia sports fans, and as a life-long law-respecter I assure you that I have not, but under different circumstances it would almost be enough to make you drape your arm over the shoulders of a Phillies fan and tell them you're so, so sorry.

The season's not over, and all hope is not lost. The Phillies open up a four-game weekend series in Washington with a double-header Friday against the dreadful Nationals. The Nationals have played better of late, but that's not so different from saying that a road-killed raccoon looks a little more spry when a gust of wind causes its tail to flop around. You could not pick a better team for helping the Phillies to get back on their feet and feel reinvigorated. The Brewers, meanwhile, kicked off a four-game series against the shitty Marlins Thursday night. Miami did the Phillies an enormous favor when a two-out, two-strike eighth-inning grand slam off the bat of Avisail Garcia flipped what appeared to be a sure-fire Milwaukee win. Fate, it seems, has not finished toying with the emotions of wrung-out Philadelphians.

If both teams take care of business this weekend, Milwaukee will finish the season at home against the plucky Diamondbacks. The Phillies, meanwhile, will take whatever momentum they capture in Washington on the road to Houston, to face the American League-leading Astros, who are absolutely no worse than the second-best team in baseball. Oh God.

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