Welcome to The Homestretch, that fun two week period when we know the players are down there in Florida, but we can't really see them yet. For the next 12 days, we'll do our best to keep you going with a series of posts as we all sprint that last 90 feet to baseball season.
I know it doesn't feel like it in August and they're playing the Marlins for the 30th time, but the Phillies will have to play opponents outside of their own division this season. Which of the NL Central teams will give them the most fits?
The Cubs are easy. The Cubs are a throwaway series. The Cubs are still trying to crawl out from under a curse put on them by a goat. These are the things people used to say about the Cubs, until their team that is somehow entirely made up of incredible young hitters made it all the way to the NLCS.
New high score, is that bad? What does that mean? Did we break it?https://t.co/uvpxGMlzm4— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) October 13, 2015
Fortunately, though, the Phillies can still look down on them. They won five of seven against the Cubs in 2015, holding their gargantuan, dinger-belching offense to an average of 4.1 runs per game. Which isn't very good, or even just good, I guess, but the Phillies managed to knock around the Chicago pitching staff for an average of 5.6 runs over those seven games.
No one knows or cares how, but Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester were not enough to keep the tepid, paper-thin Phillies lineup at bay - Lester's game was lost in extras to a Jeff Francoeur home run. In fact, as I wrote back in September, the Phillies were the only team that could have taken Arrieta down in the playoffs, as long as they were allowed to have Cole Hamels back and he had gone into the start with a 100% chance of throwing a no-hitter.
So the Phillies don't really need to worry about the Cubs; the same way the Cubs and their fans don't have a whole lot else to worry about these days. Just get through these two series with the Phillies and move on as best you can.
gah, this was a good place to pee before getting on the L after a game. Darn it. https://t.co/gSMz8eTwSp— Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav) February 11, 2016
On the other side, nobody stomped the Phillies in 2015 like the Cardinals did. Except maybe the Mets. Oh, and definitely the Brewers. We'll get to that.
The Cubs advancing further into the playoffs was easily the coolest non-Phillies baseball story of the year last season. Nobody likes the Cardinals, and it's time baseball maybe gave us a year off from them. What's the latest on that hacking scandal? Anybody get a playoff ban yet for this unprecedented act of baseball treachery? No? The organization and fans are all pretending it was the fault of one guy, not an entire department, and that the Astros password was too easy to guess anyway? Great, well; we all probably could have seen this coming.
No non-divisional opponent scored more runs on the Phillies last year than St. Louis, who in only seven games managed to get 50 men around the bases. The Phillies could only manage 28. The mid-June series in Philly was especially brutal, with the Cards throttling Aaron Harang in a 10-1 win and Phillippe Aumont (???) in a 12-4 win and looking for a sweep until Adam Morgan's rookie debut somehow proved to be their foil. Jason Heyward was especially vicious, going 11-for-25 in those games with a home run and two doubles, but he plays for the Cubs now, so no worries there.
Nobody will be surprised if the Cardinals beat the Phillies a bunch of times again this year, and they very well could be the efficient killing machine they tend to be against weak lineups.
But then again, don't worry about St. Louis, because last year, nobody pounded the Phillies, put them down, took a brief snack break, rested their eyes for a minute, then came back feeling refreshed to continue pounding them like the 68-94...
Yes, of all their many, many defeaters, it was Milwaukee who left the Phillies gasping for the most air in 2015. They were no dominant squad themselves, finishing only five games better than the Phillies, and lasting only several more steps through the desert of the regular season.
Still, it's undeniable - the Phillies could not beat the Brewers in 2015, literally. Going 0-7 against a fourth place team is a good way to ruin everybody's summer. Which they did.
So did the Brewers improve at all going into 2016, not that they'd have to in order to beat the Phillies again? Well, they have the fifth-best farm system, according to Keith Law, and they've installed a system in which each prospect is given a list of objectives customized to their specific case comprised of what they need to do to reach the majors. Behind the major league curtain, they have a crew of motivated, high-end talent facing the right direction.
But there is not much else. Jean Segura is in Arizona now; the center field job is a competition between Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Eric Young Jr., and two prospects; a Jonathan Lucroy trade feels like it will happen at some point; Matt Garza has sworn to pitch more "selfishly" in 2016; and did you know there's only one lefty currently on their 40-man roster (Will Smith)? Also, don't forget, the Brewers fired their manager, Ron Roenicke, on May 3, after picking up his 2016 option, so they'll be cutting him a check this season, along with Craig Counsell's, the guy who is actually going to be managing the club.
After going 5-17 last April and then torching the Phillies come late June, the Brewers have shown there is no low they can sink to and not still be on the Phillies' level.
The Phillies and Reds got their season series over with in the first half of June, with a pair of nail-biters that the Phillies pulled off at home, and then a Cincinnati sweep in the Queen City a few days later. The Reds were in the middle of a historical season, you see, having never finished in last place in the NL Central before. Their 64-98 record got them there just fine (and distinguished them with the "first mathematically eliminated team of 2015" label), with the Brewers giving them a run for their suckage, but it looks like that seven-game dominance of the Phillies really kept Milwaukee out of the basement.
The Dayton Daily News did its best to work the crowd come September, but the numbers just weren't there.
"If the Reds win their last 30 games and the division-leading Cardinals (86-47) lose their last 29 games, the Reds would still finish a game back of St. Louis."
So you're welcome, Reds! I know it's not fair; Cincinnati only got to play the Phillies six times instead of seven. But even so, the Phillies were able to coerce two wins out of them, so let's not just blame the scheduling. Look, we could spend a few more paragraphs filling space, but the truth is, even the vulnerable Phillies shouldn't be too terribly fearful of a match-up with this team. The Reds don't score runs (640), they don't prevent runs (754 - they finished 26th out of all 30 teams in both categories), and some of them are recovering from ligament and tendon injuries.
It doesn't seem that long ago that the Phillies were having to beat teams like the Reds and Brewers to get through the playoffs. Now we are all agog over this knee-buckling madhouse of a division - with both of those former contenders trapped in the basement.
It's the Pirates' time now! At least it was, until the Cardinals were joined by the Cubs in being unhelpful to other NL Central teams this past year. Now it's the Cubs' and Pirates' time, which when combined with the fact that it is always the Cardinals' time, makes this a fun race to watch. They just don't allow enough teams into the post season for this to end well. Unlike the Cubs (who the Phillies manhandled) and the Brewers (who did all the manhandling vs. the Phillies) the Pirates managed to work their Phillies games into a decent number of wins, going 5-2 against them.
Without Jung Ho Kang, who is expected back in April, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker, this squad is thinner at just the wrong time, fending off more competitive teams than ever. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the Phillies only scored 15 runs off the Pirates in seven games. That's the least amount of tangible offense any NL Central or NL West team allowed them, featuring two 1-0 shut-outs and never more than four Phillies runs in any particular game. I have no doubt the Buccos will handle the Phillies quite easily this season as well... or they would have, if the Phillies hadn't signed double agent Charlie Morton to reveal all of the Pirates' secrets! AAAA HA HA HA H
In the time it took to write this, I have really come down from that Cubs-beating high. I don't know how the Phillies managed it, but in all likelihood, they may not manage it again. Those Cubs are scary, like real bear cubs, because you know nearby their mother is devouring Leonardo DiCaprio. Their mother is I guess in this sense Joe Maddon. The point is, the Cardinals' regulars are aging, injured, or have abandoned them for the Cubs, and there's a reason for that. As Heyward put it after leaving St .Louis for Chicago, "I felt like if I was to look up in three years and see a completely different team, that would kind of be difficult."
The Pirates will be pesky, the Brewers may be inexplicably effective, and don't forget, the Phillies may not be too good themselves. For that reason, I see a reversal in fortune for the Cubs when they take on the Phillies year, the image of their manager devouring Hollywood's biggest movie star still fresh in their young, impressionable minds.