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This has not been a productive Thursday for the Phillies

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This has not been a productive Thursday for the Phillies

If you're looking for the stat to define the Phillies' season, it's this one leading into Thursday's series finale against the Braves. This is how the Phils have played over the last month.

Last 2 games: 1-1
Last 4 games: 2-2
Last 6 games: 3-3
Last 10 games: 5-5
Last 12 games: 6-6
Last 14 games: 7-7
Last 16 games: 8-8
Last 18 games: 9-9
Last 20 games: 10-10
Last 22 games: 11-11
Last 24 games: 12-12

The essence of mediocrity.

The Brewers won their seventh straight game Thursday afternoon, completing a sweep of the Marlins.

The Mets won their fourth straight game, completing a sweep of the Diamondbacks.

The Cubs, losers of five of six through Thursday, beat the Padres.

As the Phillies prepare to play their 146th game of the season, they trail the Brewers and Cubs by 2½ games and the Mets by a half-game for the second wild-card spot (see standings). The D-backs have faded from the picture and are a game behind the Phillies.

This is where remaining schedules come into play. The Cubs begin a 10-game homestand on Friday: three vs. the Pirates, three with the Reds, four with the Cardinals. After that, it's another three-game series against the lowly Pirates.

The Brewers have a tough series this weekend in St. Louis, followed by a seven-game homestand against the Padres and Pirates, then a road trip to Cincinnati and Colorado. All four of those teams are playing out the string.

The Mets' road is a bit tougher. They have three at home this weekend against the Dodgers, followed by three in Colorado and three in Cincy. Then comes a four-game series vs. the Marlins before a season-ending set against the Braves.

The Phillies' schedule is by far the hardest. After the Braves series, they face the Red Sox twice at home then have an 11-game road trip to Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington. They will face a lot of good pitching on that trip: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Soroko, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin. 

After Saturday's Aaron Nola-Eduardo Rodriguez pitching matchup, the Phillies could very well be the underdog in 12 consecutive games.

It's getting late. The projection systems don't like the Phillies' chances and nor does the fanbase, apparently. The Phillies have drawn an average of 24,000 fans in the first three games of the Braves series. They've been the weakest home crowds of the season, in mid-September, in a divisional series. Telling.

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One swing of the bat makes a big difference for Phillies and foes in NL wild-card race

One swing of the bat makes a big difference for Phillies and foes in NL wild-card race

One swing of the bat can mean so much in a playoff race.

Look what happened Tuesday night in Miami.

Look what happened in Philadelphia.

Down in Miami, the Milwaukee Brewers, who are locked in the same National League wild-card race as the Phillies, lost their best player, reigning league MVP Christian Yelich, for the remainder of the season when he suffered a broken right kneecap on a foul ball in the first inning.

Yelich entered the night leading the league in slugging (.672) and OPS (1.102). The Brewers won their game in Miami, but can they survive the rest of the way without Yelich? His injury could change the complexion of the wild-card race as it nears the wire.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Phillies were 6-5 winners over the Atlanta Braves. The Phils won it on the strength of five home runs and some nifty bullpen work turned in by five relievers, three of them who’d been released by their old clubs over the last six weeks. In all, the ‘pen pitched six innings and allowed just one run after Jason Vargas had trouble throwing strikes and exited after three innings.

“That's a very difficult lineup to navigate through six innings and our bullpen did a tremendous job,” manager Gabe Kapler.

The Braves are a power plant. They have 230 homers, second-most in the NL and six shy of a team record.

The Phillies are not a power plant. They entered the night ranked 11th in the NL with 186 homers. But the power came on in this one and the win left the Phils with a chance to close to within two games of the second NL wild-card spot, depending on the outcome of the Cubs-Padres game in San Diego. Oh, by the way, the Cubs have also endured a recent injury to a star player as Javier Baez went down with a broken thumb last week. The Phils have 18 games left and are in the thick of the race with the Cubs, Brewers and Diamondbacks.

The Phillies came out with four runs — on three homers — in the first inning. J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper and Corey Dickerson all went deep against Max Fried.

Vargas gave up the lead in the third inning, but the Phillies got it back — for good — on one swing of the bat, one swing of the bat that will make it onto the team’s end-of-season highlight video.

With two outs and the game tied, 4-4, in the bottom of the third, Scott Kingery launched a long fly ball to center. The ball cleared the wall, but Braves centerfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., leaped and was able to get the ball into the pocket of his glove. As Acuna Jr., brought the ball back over the fence, he lost control of it and it hit the ground. No catch. No home-run robbery. With the play in front of him, Kingery kept motoring and got his home run inside-the-park style.

If Kingery hadn't run hard out of the box, he might not have made it home. As it was, he had to dive into home plate.

“The hustle he showed,” Kapler said. “We talked since spring training how important sharp turns around the bases were and how important it is to hustle out of the batter’s box on any ball. And we weren't sure if it was a home run. Kingery wasn't sure if it was a home run. Acuna wasn't sure if it was a home run. And he never stopped running. And that's why he walked away with an inside-the-park home run, one of the more exciting plays we've seen all year.”

The 360-foot sprint left Kingery winded, but elated.

“I wasn’t really sure what the rules were once the ball came out of his glove, so I just kept running and thankfully Dusty (Wathan, the third base coach) sent me home,” Kingery said. “I just tried to run even faster when I saw him sending me. For the next full inning I was trying to catch my breath out there."

Eventually, the Phillies’ bullpen gave up a run when Jared Hughes allowed a homer in the eighth, but by that time the Phils had a two-run lead thanks to Dickerson’s second home of the game. Both of his homers came against left-handers.

General manager Matt Klentak has taken plenty of heat for not making more significant additions at the trade deadline, but Dickerson has been a pretty good one as evidenced by his eight homers and 34 RBIs in 33 games.

“One of the things we're noticing is that left or right, he's probably got to be in the lineup right now,” Kapler said of Dickerson. “And if a left-handed reliever comes into the game, we almost feel comfortable and confident in Corey. I know the Pirates were using him in a platoon role. But certainly he looks dangerous against left-handers and right-handers and perhaps has really made a change for the better in his career.”

In addition to the five homers and six innings of one-run ball from the bullpen, the Phils got three huge defensive plays from Kingery, Realmuto and Harper.

Eighteen games left and this imperfect team is still in this imperfect wild-card race.

Zach Eflin faces Dallas Keuchel on Wednesday night.

Will one swing of the bat make a difference again?

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Yes, the Phillies actually gained ground this weekend — checking in on NL wild-card teams

Yes, the Phillies actually gained ground this weekend — checking in on NL wild-card teams

The Phillies had a brutal weekend in Miami yet didn't lose ground in the wild-card race. And so the charade continues.

The second wild card remains reachable for flawed teams like the Phillies, Brewers and Cubs. And one of them, or the slightly-less-flawed Mets, has to finish in that spot.

This weekend, the Phillies lost two of three in Miami. The Mets were swept at home by the Braves. The Cubs were swept at home by the Nationals. The Phillies actually gained a game, silly as that may sound.

The Phillies are 1½ games behind the Cubs, but at 67-62 the Phils are on track to win 84 games and that won't get you into the one-game playoff. Even if you assume that 87, typically a low number for the second wild-card spot, is high enough, that would still require the Phillies to go 20-13 over their final 33 games.

Do you see the Phillies going 20-13 over their final 33 games?

The Phils have three at home with the Pirates this week, an off-day Thursday, then three at home with the Mets. The Phillies have not faced the Mets since the last series before the All-Star break. The Mets ended that series 10 games under .500. They're four over now.

The Phillies' September schedule is daunting. After four games in Cincinnati to begin the month, they have their final three with the Mets at Citi Field, four with the Braves, two vs. the Red Sox, three more in Atlanta, three in Cleveland, five in D.C. and then the Marlins to close out the regular season.

After the Reds series, that's 20 straight games the Phillies will play against teams over .500 and fighting for the playoffs. None of those games will be made easier by a team sitting key players.

The season is now 80 percent complete. The Phillies are what they are — a team slightly above .500. Removing passion or optimism from the equation, their likeliest range is 82 to 85 wins. 

Unless the Phils make a run they haven't made since the fourth week of May, those nine losses against Miami will stick out. The Phillies need to sweep the Marlins the final weekend of September just to avoid a losing record against the National League's worst team.

The injuries will stick out, though if you were told at the beginning of the season that the Phillies would lose Andrew McCutchen for the season along with six of their top seven relievers, 82 to 85 wins would have sounded reasonable.

The 2019 Nationals are a much better team than the 2019 Phillies. They have the deep, powerful and multidimensional offense the Phillies thought they had. Their rotation is far superior. Their bullpen, with the deadline additions of Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland, is not the nightly sieve it was in the first half.

The Mets, as of this moment, also have the better roster. They have three dangerous hitters in Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto, a red-hot Amed Rosario and useful offensive pieces in J.D. Davis, Wilson Ramos and Todd Frazier. The offenses of the Mets and Phillies are pretty even, but the Mets have the huge edge in starting pitching and therefore pitching altogether.

The Cubs have a decent but disappointing rotation, a bad bullpen and an offense that has been stale much of the last two months. They're still probably a slightly deeper team than the Phillies, and down the stretch, you'd rather be the team with Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and Yu Darvish than the team with Aaron Nola, Jason Vargas, Drew Smyly, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez.

The Phillies' run differential of minus-17 suggests they've outperformed their true talent level this season. There are 14 teams with negative run differentials and only the Phillies and Brewers have winning records.

To finish ahead of the Cubs, Mets and Brewers, the Phillies will have to play the kind of baseball they have not played with this group, the kind of baseball the underlying numbers illustrate they're probably incapable of.

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