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Remembering the days the Phillies were in first place

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It wasn’t for long, but it was enough to make this season more than it was supposed to be.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve repeated the number many times this season, like automated voices on the other end of a bizarre misdial: 39.

39.

39.

It’s the number of days the 2018 Phillies spent in first place, and there’s a reason it turns us into mindless drones: This isn’t a place the Phillies had been in a while, and it was even less likely that this year would see their return. But for 39 days, it did.

On May 26, the Phillies used brief, but timely offense to back their best starting pitcher for a slim 2-1 win over the Blue Jays in Philadelphia. Maikel Franco gave them a fifth inning lead with a home run, and when they lost it, Nick Williams got it back with another bomb in the eighth.

Nola changed his philosophy from “let them hit grounders” to “don’t let them hit anything.” It worked, for the most part, disrupted only twice: Once by the grounds crew for a 22-minute rain delay, and then again by Russell Martin, with an RBI single, the first hit of a two-hit day for Toronto.

The Red Sox out team-of-destiny’d the Braves in Boston, and the Phillies were ahead by half a game. The next night, their dainty, frail lead in the division was unceremoniously crushed to death by a series of factors, one of which was a rare firing of the pistons in Curtis Granderson’s power cells, and another was the Braves’ ability to score runs seven at a time. The Phillies wouldn’t see first place again until over a month later.

It didn’t matter. We were rabid for first place again, frothy-mouthed with desire to climb over the Braves and out of the wild card race. This would be no back door entrance into the playoffs, no; the Phillies were going to kick the front entrance open and then continue kicking until everyone in the room was cowering for mercy.

They fell to 4.5 back on June 19, when the Cardinals stabbed a brutal L through the heart of Seranthony Dominguez. Rhys Hoskins exercised his dramatics with a game-tying two run double in the eighth, only for Matt Carpenter to put a Dominguez offering in the seats an inning later. Sometimes, even when they came through, these Phillies couldn’t get to the other side.

Taking three of four from the Nationals in our nation’s capital, just before America’s birthday, felt appropriately villainous for this squad of youngsters and a few oldsters strung together with dental floss and Christmas lights. Then they swept the Orioles, something you can do these days just by passing into Baltimore city limits, and with a seven-run inning against the Pirates, exploded for a 17-5 win that put them in a tie for the NL East’s top spot once again.

By July 10, it was back to scoreboard-watching. In Toronto, the Braves started Julio Teheran. The Phillies went with Enyel De Los Santos, missing the AAA All-Star Game to make his major league debut. Maikel Franco homered early, Nick Williams came through with the bases loaded, and Rhys Hoskins survived a violent encounter with a wall to deliver the 7-3 win and the sole population of the NL East’s top spot.

All they needed to do now was avoid the inevitable for two and a half months:

Just keep up that unsustainably good pitching, that barely-there bullpen, and that just-enough offense from players with little consistency in their production, positions, lineups, or deployment beyond the equations born in Gabe Kapler’s head, and first place was as good as theirs.

They clung to it for a couple of weeks, falling back into a tie before desperately crawling out of it. But they didn’t win enough for a first place team, and the losses pile up a lot faster when you’re protecting a one-game lead. The Braves were playing to win; the Phillies were playing to survive, and eventually, too many slumps, too many mistakes, too many pitches left high across the plate for Blake Swihart in extras, and the Phillies’ borrowed time ran out.

The last time these Phillies had a share of first place was now a month and a day ago, today. The last time they appeared capable of a playoff run was early August, in that now infamous four-game sweep of the Marlins, a time when they somehow made beating a fourth-place team and a last-place franchise feel like they could hang with anybody.

Being in first place is sometimes just lucky. Sometimes it means you did the right math. But when the Phillies came back to first place, it was a reminder of what a team can do when it all comes together. And then, after that Marlins sweep, we had 56 days to be reminded what it’s like when it all falls apart.

We were here, the last time the Phillies were in first place in 2011. These Phillies were not. Rhys Hoskins wasn’t even drafted until three years later (He was also born during spring training in 1993, if you really want to crumble into a pile of dust today). For them, the feeling was new. For fans, it was nostalgic.

For 39 days, we were seven years younger. And as the Phillies gazed down from the precipice, with the pathetic NL East entirely below them, this new crop of faces without a single link to the generation behind them, creaked open a door to the past, just 2.5 games wide, that had been closed for quite some time.

Through that door came memories, expectations, demands, predictions, and complaints. The arrival in first place was followed quickly by the chaos that follows it: Who are these Phillies? Are they for real? What is real? Is the NL East that hard to win anyway? If I say I don’t believe in them now, will I get cool points when they suck later?

If the Phillies had never forced their way into first place, their shortcomings would not have been so dramatic in the second half. If it were the Nationals, and not the similarly rebuilding Braves, who appear primed to take the division, it would have felt familiar. Being in first place is good, because it means, even temporarily, that something was working. There’s something to build from here. The Phillies raised expectations, and then shrunk away from them. Unlike a few of the league’s success stories, they aren’t quite ready to make that push. But a couple of times this year, they knew when to shove.

First place is rightfully no one’s. The path that gets you there twists around injuries, plummets before managerial decisions, and remains haunted by BABIP. Who knows what analytical, gut-feeling, ass-backwards way the Phillies will find it again. But now that we’ve seen that they can, it feels more likely that they will. And perhaps next time, they’ll hold onto it for a little longer.