As Braves chase Mets, Phillies creep up from behind

I never wavered in my belief that the Braves would figure things out even as they stumbled through the season’s first two months. They would get sorted out and make the postseason one way or another. I’ll end up being right about that. But it turns out I was wrong to write off the Phillies, who are creeping up on the Braves in the National League wild-card standings.

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The Phillies rallied late to beat Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara on Wednesday for their seventh consecutive victory and 12th in 14 games. The Phillies are 41-19 since June 1. Only the Dodgers (44-17) and Braves (42-19) have a better winning percentage during that time (all statistics and records before Thursday’s games). Now the Phillies are on track to end their postseason drought at 10 years.

The Phillies kept winning even after outfielder Bryce Harper, the 2021 NL MVP, went to the injured list June 26. They’ve gotten offensive pop from veteran sluggers whom team owner John Middleton paid “stupid” money. The top of the rotation is strong, the bullpen has improved dramatically and defense, a Phillies sore spot for years, has become passable.

The Phillies aren’t a threat to the Braves’ postseason hopes. There are three NL wild cards available, with four teams in contention. The Braves, who are four games clear of the cutoff, will earn one of them. The Phillies and Padres will get the other two. The Central’s second-place team will be left out.

The Braves (66-46) may have blown their chance at winning the East by losing four of five at the Mets last weekend. Now they’ll have to contend with the Phillies (62-48) trying to take the top wild card from them over the final 50 games. As things stand, the Braves would play a best-of-three series at home versus the Phillies with the winner advancing to play the Dodgers in a Division Series. That would be better than a wild-card series against the Padres, who added star sluggers Juan Soto and Josh Bell before the trade deadline.

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The Phillies could keep streaking against a softening schedule. They face the Mets in seven of their next 12 games, but after that, will go three weeks without facing a team that currently has a winning mark.

“I just think we have the right guys in this clubhouse,” J.T. Realmuto told reporters after hitting a go-ahead, RBI single against the Marlins in the eighth inning. “We have a lot of confidence in ourselves. I’ve said this many times before, but we don’t feel like we’re ever out of a game. Our lineup’s too deep. We’re too consistent.”

That was Philadelphia’s blueprint for this season. They added outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos to their expensive lineup. They would score so many runs that their suspect bullpen and shaky defense wouldn’t matter so much. The plan wasn’t working through May, when the Phillies ranked 11th among MLB teams in runs scored, but now they are sixth.

Schwarber (.890 on-base plus slugging since June 1), Realmuto (.876) and Rhys Hoskins (.936) all recovered from slow starts. Alec Bohm is starting to fulfill the promise he showed while finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020. Castellanos still isn’t hitting to his standard, but his .827 OPS over the past two weeks includes a two-run homer in the eighth inning of a 3-1 victory over the Braves.

Philadelphia’s offense improved at the same time its bullpen and defense stopped being liabilities. Phillies relief pitchers ranked 28th in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement through May, but third since then. Corey Knebel, Philadelphia’s $10 million closer, has sorted himself out. And notes that, after ranking last in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric in May, the Phillies were seventh best in July.

Philadelphia’s surge correlates with changing managers from Joe Girardi to Rob Thomson. That doesn’t mean it’s the cause. Consider the schedule: Girardi’s 51 games as Phillies manager included 12 against the Mets, six against the Dodgers and four against the Braves. It wasn’t Girardi’s fault that Philadelphia’s high-priced hitters weren’t hitting. He couldn’t help it that Harper’s sore elbow kept him from playing the outfield, which was a big hit to the defense.

The Phillies still were treading water three weeks ago. They lost four consecutive games. Then they swept the Marlins in three games before the All-Star break. Then they lost three consecutive to the Cubs after the break. Philadelphia got going by winning two of three games against the Braves despite very good starts by Max Fried and Spencer Strider.

Philadelphia followed that series victory by winning four in a row at Pittsburgh, then splitting a two-game series against the Braves. As the Braves lost four of five at the Mets last weekend, the Phillies swept the Nationals in four games. As the Braves were completing a two-game sweep of the Red Sox on Wednesday, the Phillies secured a series victory at Miami.

You can look at those Phillies opponents — Pirates, Nationals and Marlins — and conclude that they are just beating up on bad teams. But that’s also how the Braves turned their season around. Plus, the Phillies are 6-6 against the Braves and have a 27-29 record against winning teams while the Braves are 21-26. Philly has been better against good teams while facing a lot more of them.

We’ll see if the Phillies can finish strong this time. They couldn’t do it last season. They were one game below break-even at the All-Star break and had the easiest remaining schedule among NL playoff contenders. The Phillies finished 82-80, 6 ½ games behind the Braves in the East and eight games back of St. Louis for the second wild card.

The Braves have been able to count on the Mets and Phillies fading in recent years. Now the Mets are likely to end Atlanta’s streak of East titles at four years, and the Phillies are threatening to catch them in the wild-card standings. The Braves still are going to the postseason but, surprisingly, it’s the Phillies who can make their path tougher.