Welcome to The Homestretch, that fun two week period when we know the players are down there in Florida, but we cannot yet see them on TV. Until spring training games start, we'll keep you going with a series of posts as we all sprint that last 90 feet to baseball season.
There's a nemesis in all of our lives, laughing at our pain, celebrating our failures, and rooting for our bad luck. All we can do is rush home, scream into a pillow, and plot revenge. Some say it's not a healthy way to live, letting your life revolve around vengeance for a perceived slight. Those people are dead to us.
Like all of us, the Phillies, too, have adversaries whom defeating brings an added sense of glee. As NL East rivals, beating them, regardless of context, is all the more rewarding. Or at least, it's supposed to be. There was a time when rivalries in this division required extra security. Now, the new landscape is the setting of a different story.
2015 record vs. Phillies: 8-11, 66 RS, 71 RA
The Braves haven't had to avoid the fire of anti-tanking zealots like other rebuilding teams. Whatever they're doing, we're being told they're doing it the right way. However, beating their team on the field doesn't quite have the same zip when the club is still being reassembled.
With guys like the always lovable Chipper Jones and the adorably authoritarian Brian McCann gone, there are less reasons to take issues with their individual players. But it's still the organization as a whole that can make you shake your head.
Don't worry, they definitely still moan the awful Tomahawk Chop every time a Braves players gets a hit, grabs some trash that was blowing on the field or eats part of a granola bar and announces his intention to "eat the rest later." But they are also squeezing $392 million out of a public that is not 100% for a new stadium, in a city that has been making deep cuts elsewhere.
But, when the season actually starts going, it would be probably a waste of time for either of these teams to lob criticisms at each other. It's one thing to be the stout, powerful leader of a division, casting judgement on the woeful teams beneath you, but two teams who can't both finish in last place only because they play in the same division probably won't play the fieriest games of the season. There's always a reason to hate the Braves as an institution, but right now their team is too young and transient to really latch onto with misplaced anger. I mean, I make a lot joke about Freddie Freeman getting crayons stuck up his nose or eating a bucket of fish slop, but that's just because it's objectively funny to everyone.
Prediction: Phillies win season series, 11-8.
2015 record vs. Phillies: 10-9, 79 RS, 75 RA
The Marlins may be the one team in this division for whom I would classify my hatred as "passing." They've never fought the Phillies for a playoff spot, they've never stolen any players, they've never gone out of their way to commit offense. You might say they've had enough of their own internal struggles to become a huge problem for anybody else. There was that afternoon we thought we were getting Giancarlo Stanton somehow, but my gut tells me that wasn't the Marlins' fault.
I showered the young Marlins outfield of Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich with love last February and got nothing but red-faced shame for my support. If nothing else, I can hold that against them. Beating Miami at least means beating Jeffrey Loria, even if it is just for one night.
Representatives of the other teams in this division might disagree, but from where I'm sitting, the Fish don't really move the needle on a court-mandated blood lust gauge. Plus, the Phillies don't even have too hard a time beating the Marlins. And I mean the current Phillies.
Even last year, with the Phillies at their worst, they still managed to be over .500 against Miami; in fact, they didn't score more runs off any other pitching staff in the league. Odubel Herrera was especially abusive, hitting .368 against the Marlins last year with an .885 OPS through all 19 games in which the Phillies played them. And Aaron Altherr struck them with one of his four glorious triples in 39 games.
These are Don Mattingly's (and Barry Bonds') Fish now, though. Last year, the Phillies helped Mattingly come up with a new nickname for one of his star players as the Dodgers' manager. This year, he doesn't have the Dodgers' bottomless money pit behind him or a team that just won three consecutive NL West titles in front of him. As a divisional rival, playing the Phillies might be one of the more common tests for a club with transitioning leadership. And the Phillies could use this to crush them.
Prediction: Marlins win season series, 13-6.
2015 record vs. Phillies: 5-14, 76 RS, 111 RA
Anytime someone brings up their most hated Phillies rival*, there is always one person who responds, "I just never got all the [team] hate!" And congratulations to those people for living rich, fulfilling, hateless lives. I'm sure your loved ones reap the benefits daily of your emotional availability. But for the rest of us normal people, the Mets suck, and being out of the playoff picture hasn't changed that, and I don't care if I'm "ruining dinner again," Brenda, I will not "keep my voice down."
I am not looking forward to a full season of Yoenis Cespedes shattering young pitchers' confidence. I am not looking forward to David Wright, who seems to have cleansed himself of nagging injuries. If the Mets stay good, they may start acquiring more good players. And then the Phillies will have to play them.
It's easy to feel wronged by the Mets, since the Phillies were wronged by them so resoundingly in 2015. New York won 14 of 19 games, though it's not some sort of anomaly; it happened because the Phillies were thin and bad and the Mets were even better than anyone thought they would be. That's what this post is all about, though; even as the defending NL champs, the Mets aren't going to beat the Phillies in every one of their 19 match-ups this season, as the Phillies managed to somehow win five times against them with last year's squad. And when they do show up with enough piss and vinegar to beat Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or any one of the Mets' endless series of hot young starters and fall ass-backwards into a victory, it will inject life back into your veins.
In fact, if the Mets and Nationals are battling each other to the end of the year, it's the Phillies who play New York in seven of their last ten games, including the final three. There's a potential there for some intensely cathartic baseball, especially since the Phillies will hopefully have made a bunch of call-ups from their fertile farm system by then.
*I'm assuming this is a huge discussion topic for everyone
Prediction: Mets win season series, 14-5.
2015 record vs. Phillies: 7-12, 72 RS, 79 RA
This is the team that seems to make the question asked by this post easy to answer. When you play in the same division as the Nationals in the current era, it's quite simple to determine who your most insufferable rival is. The Nationals are not afraid to complain.
Washington has made it clear that, while they always seem able to assemble a stellar team, they also don't require much more than a gentle gust of wind carrying a bad scent to turn on each other. It helps when the Phillies somehow convince them to trade for a petulant hurler with a history of disruptive behavior. In fact, you could argue it stems from that. Was it the best trade in Phillies history, regardless of how Nick Pivetta turns out? Yes it was.
Bryce Harper says that everybody made a big deal out of the throat-snaring in the Nationals' dugout, and that he and Papelbon "...haven't even brought it up since that day." As we keep trying to explain to our families, not talking about things makes them go away, so obviously Harper has the right idea here.
It's long been documented that the Nationals have lived with a crippling inferiority complex, having been victimized by relentless Phillies fans. They seemed to care as much about beating the Phillies specifically as they did about having, in general, a competitive team. Now, with their team a consistent favorite to win the NL East, it's their time!
But, it hasn't been. They've won it twice in four years, but have never hoisted the trophy they were widely presumed to reach. And this after that sense of inadequacy led them to try and sign every ex-Phillie they could find in order to brain wash them and turn them into hollowed-out husks with curly W's on their caps. This may have been the organizational philosophy that led them to bring in Jonathan Papelbon, mistaking the trade they made to get him from the Phillies as yet another act of revenge.
They blew seven games against the Phillies in 2015. They even lost this game, in which all they had to do was sit back and let the Phillies not give Cole Hamels any run support. But no! Things really took a turn when Michael Taylor got thrown out at home plate by Ben Revere! What are you doing, Nationals?!
Though they are easy to make fun of, as long as you ignore all the things that are impressive about them, the Nationals, unless they blow it even more than I think they will, are going to get hot (as will the Mets) over the course of a 162-game season. And, given the schedule, that means the Phillies will probably have to play them when they are hot. And that is not going to be pretty. The question is: can they get hot enough to outpace the number of dugout chokings?
Prediction: Nationals win season series, 11-8.
This really turned into me taunting teams and then admitting that the Phillies would lose to them a lot (except for the Braves, of course).
Is it more gratifying to beat the Mets, a team with a higher stature entering the 2016 season, with whom the team-on-team rivalry has fizzled - or to beat the Nationals, a team with less history vs. the Phillies but that, given their past actions, would feel more devastated by the loss?
It will all depend on context, of course - being responsible for keeping an NL East team out of the playoffs would change everything, no matter which team we're talking about. And I hate to draw the obvious choice here, but for now, to me, I still get a lot out of beating the Nationals. Perhaps their clubhouse will be in disarray, and a series loss to the Phillies will plunge them into ruin. While the Phillies were starting to implode, Nationals were there, lapping it up, presuming their inheritance of divisional dominance was at hand. Their tears still make the most potent hate-filled cocktail.