Every remaining game, series and week for the Phillies is crucial but perhaps none more so than this next week, which may be their final opportunity to make up serious ground on the Braves.
The Phils were idle Monday as the Braves had their nine-game winning streak snapped by the red-hot Yankees. At 27-9 since the All-Star break, the Yankees have the best record in baseball. Atlanta has one more with the Yankees at home Tuesday, then two consecutive days off, followed by three-game series against the Giants and Dodgers.
For the Braves, it is by far the most challenging stretch of games remaining on their schedule. After they finish with the Dodgers, the Braves play 17 of 20 against the Rockies, Nationals, Marlins, and Diamondbacks. And unlike the Phillies, the Braves have cleaned up on those teams, going 31-18 against the six worst teams in the NL compared to the Phils’ 22-20 record.
During the same stretch, the Phillies have two games against the AL-best Tampa Bay Rays tonight and tomorrow, followed by a four-game series against the NL-worst D-backs and three on the road against the Nationals, who have the NL's highest second-half ERA at 5.88.
The Phillies enter their week 4½ games out in the NL East and five back in the wild-card race. They begin the Rays series by facing a non-traditional starting pitcher, just as they did Sunday in San Diego against Craig Stammen. The Rays are starting right-hander Drew Rasmussen, who has topped out at four innings. They haven’t yet named a starter for Wednesday night’s game.
The Phils have Ranger Suarez and Zack Wheeler going in the two-game series. Suarez is looking to bounce back after giving up eight hits and three runs in 4⅔ innings in the desert. It was Suarez’ first subpar pitching performance in a month, since he allowed a game-tying home run in the ninth inning to Jesus Aguilar as the Phillies’ closer. His ERA for the season is still a microscopic 1.47.
It is amazing what the Rays, an ego-less regular-season juggernaut, have accomplished since 2018. They’re 303-206 since 2018. To put that in perspective, it’s an even better winning percentage than the Phillies had from 2007-11.
No Rays hitter is having an MVP-caliber season, but they do have dangerous bats throughout. Left-handed hitting Brandon Lowe has 29 home runs and Austin Meadows has 21. Lowe has hit .357 over his last 15 games and has a .983 OPS since the All-Star break. Randy Arozarena can beat you with power or speed.
Nelson Cruz, who was placed on the COVID injured list Sunday, is expected to return and play first base in the two-game series. He has never played first base in his 17-year major-league career. Cruz has, surprisingly, been disappointing in his first 24 games as a Ray, hitting .198 with seven homers in 105 plate appearances. Despite that, there are few hitters more physically imposing or dangerous in a given plate appearance.
The Rays also keep rolling despite significant bullpen turnover. They’ve spent this season without injured Nick Anderson, their lockdown closer/setup man in 2019 and 2020. At the deadline, they traded Diego Castillo, their closer, to Seattle. Even die-hard baseball fans would be unlikely to name half the pitchers in Tampa’s bullpen right now.
The Phillies can’t look ahead, but they’ll have something to prove this weekend against the Diamondbacks after the Rays leave town. The Phillies lost three in a row in Arizona to a team that had gone 21-62 in the preceding 83 games, quite literally losing three of every four games.
Having Rhys Hoskins back should be a big boost this week. Hoskins homered twice in his return to the Phillies’ lineup Sunday, two of their four homers on the day. The Phils need to quickly get Andrew McCutchen turned around. He struck out five times on Saturday and sat Sunday. He’s 4 for 39 with 16 K’s since returning from a knee injury in early August.