The Phillies Are Closing An Enthralling, Excruciating Season
2:33 PM EDT on September 22, 2021
Bryce Harper rounded third base like his life depended upon beating the throw heading towards home plate. The Phillies trailed the Orioles 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning, but a J.T. Realmuto drive to right had scored Ronald Torreyes. Now Harper was heading home to win the game.
He got home with a great slide, beating Austin Wynns's tag. He pumped his fist as he got up. The Phillies ran out of the dugout to celebrate—but only a little. After all, they’d just only beaten the worst team in baseball. Harper, in particular, acted as if he didn’t want to celebrate too much. Maybe he was worried about his teammates rubbing off on him if they got too close—not COVID, but their suckitude.
Bryce Harper is in his third season with the Phillies after signing a 13-year, $330 million contract in 2019. Overall, he’s been fantastic. In almost three seasons with the Phillies so far, he’s hitting .281 with a .958 OPS and 81 homers. This season has been a breakout. He currently leads the NL in slugging and OPS. He’s third in batting average; a Phillie hasn’t won the batting title since 1958.
Yet his Phillies career has also been a little disappointing. He’s had slow starts in both 2019 and this year, and so still hasn’t made an All-Star Game with the team. He’s been hurt a bit. And while he’s had stellar second halves in both 2019 and this season, the Phillies haven’t returned to the postseason. Signing Bryce Harper was about getting back to the playoffs, where the Phils haven’t been since their 102-60 season in 2011. In 2019, fans literally feuded with a player who’d just hit a walkoff homer; the Phillies finished .500. Last season the Phillies had one of the worst bullpens in history, and missed the short-season expanded playoffs by a game.
And this year! The Phillies opened 4-0. They were .500 by the season’s 14th game. They’ve hovered around there all year while dealing with a number of issues that have given fans fits. Odubel Herrera returned to the team this season, two years after an arrest in Atlantic City for allegedly choking his girlfriend. (Charges were dropped.) The team's starting center fielder opening day, Adam Haseley, left the team for a bit in the spring for personal reasons and is now in the minor leagues. (He was 4-for-21 anyway.) The team has had several COVID-19 outbreaks. Alec Bohm, who was not vaccinated, gave reliever Bailey Falter a bad case of it. Bohm’s defense was so bad, he was sent to the minors. Vince Velasquez made 18 starts with a 6.05 ERA, argued with a fan (like Sean Rodriguez in 2019, Velasquez seemed to be in the right, I guess) and was eventually cut. Rhys Hoskins, the team’s regular first baseman, is out for the year. Pitcher Zach Eflin has been an Efl on the Shefl and also may miss the rest of the season. Didi Gregorius said he got pseudogout from the COVID-19 vaccine; doctors say that’s not possible. They are so low on pitchers, they regularly do bullpen games. While the bullpen is not the disaster it was last season, they still lead the league in blown saves with 32, which is two off the MLB record. They broke off a winning streak mid-summer, grabbed the NL East lead by two games, and promptly lost 7-of-9 to fall back out of first. They have been outscored by 11 runs over the course of the season.
And yet! The Phillies are still just three games out of the NL East lead in September. They play Atlanta, the division leaders, three times later this month and could actually win the division outright. In addition to Harper, 2020 free agent signing Zack Wheeler has been one of the reasons why. He’s pitched 200 innings, leads the NL in complete games and shutouts, and has a 2.83 ERA. He leads the league in Baseball-Reference WAR. JT Realmuto is a top catcher and still hits pretty well. Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen have been slightly above average. Ranger Suarez, a reliever turned starter, has a 1.99 ERA in 10 starts (though some have been short as he got stretched out).
The other reason the Phillies are still in contention is their schedule. Their remaining games include one more against the Orioles, the worst team in baseball; four against the Pirates, who have 94 losses; those big three in Atlanta; and three in Miami against the Marlins, who are 64-87.
This week’s home series against the Orioles is a good way to show how frustrating the Phillies are. The Phillies had just taken 2-of-3 from the Mets; before losing the last game they’d clawed to just one back of Atlanta. “They are not a great team; good enough will carry them further into October,” Matt Gelb of The Athletic wrote before Game 1. “It’s fine to acknowledge that while still hanging on every pitch for two weeks in September. Savor it, no matter how dumb it feels. That’s how the Phillies are still standing.”
I agreed, and got ready to watch Game 1 of the series. I was rewarded with a 2-0 Phillies loss, the Orioles' fourth shutout of the season and first since July 18. The Phillies didn’t actually score until the 15th inning of their series against the Orioles—a team that is 48-103 and barely trying. They won in the 10th. Great. They are still three games back in the division.
There’s a famous play in Phillies history from 1964. The Phillies, late in the year, were clinging to the NL lead. Playing against the Milwaukee Braves, down two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Dick Allen hit a bomb to center field at Connie Mack Stadium. He bolted around the bases for an inside-the-park home run and tied the game. “It was a lot like the old Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano fights, with the Phillies climbing groggily of the canvas all night long,” Stan Hochman wrote in the Daily News. “It was dramatic, and it was exciting, and it was heartwarming.” The Phillies ended up losing in 12 innings. (The Zale-Graziano fights were in the mid-1940s, if you’re wondering whether sportswriter references were just as dated in the 60s as they are today.)
What’s more famous is how the Phillies ended that season: They were up 6 ½ games with 12 games to play and did not win the league. This season is not a collapse like that one. It’s been more of a slow burn throughout the season. It may be that, no matter what Harper’s heroics will be, they’re going to end up on the outside looking in again. For now, though, it is dramatic, and it is exciting, and it is sometimes even heartwarming.