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The 1988 Dodgers, 2006 Cardinals & 10 games left for the Phillies to join them

The Phillies are an incomplete, flawed team, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make the postseason.

After an uninspiring but season-saving series victory over the Baltimore Orioles, the Phillies have just 10 games left in what has been a mostly frustrating season.

But they are not dead. Despite having dirt thrown on their corpses numerous times (I’ve done it at least three times in the last month), the Phils enter Thursday at 78-74, three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. Atlanta’s magic number for a fourth straight division title is 9.

Amazingly, the Phillies still control their own fate. After a four game series this weekend against the 57-94 Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phils finish up their season with an all-important road series in Atlanta and a three-game series in their own personal house of horrors, Miami, against the Marlins.

Phillies vs. Braves remaining schedule

Date Phillies Opponent (Record) Braves Opponent (Record)
Date Phillies Opponent (Record) Braves Opponent (Record)
Thu. 9/23 vs. Pirates (57-94) @ Diamondbacks (48-104)
Fri. 9/24 vs. Pirates (57-94) @ Padres (76-75)
Sat. 9/25 vs. Pirates (57-94) @ Padres (76-75)
Sun. 9/26 vs. Pirates (57-94) @ Padres (76-75)
Tue. 9/28 @ Braves (80-70) vs. Phillies (78-74)
Wed. 9/29 @ Braves (80-70) vs. Phillies (78-74)
Thu. 9/30 @ Braves (80-70) vs. Phillies (78-74)
Fri. 10/1 @ Marlins (64-88) vs. Mets (73-79)
Sat. 10/2 @ Marlins (64-88) vs. Mets (73-79)
Sun. 10/3 @ Marlins (64-88) vs. Mets (73-79)

The Phillies have played the Braves well in 2021, going 9-7 against them, although Atlanta has outscored them 75-64. But if the Phillies win three of four or even sweep a bad Pirates team, they enter their penultimate series against them with a chance to leapfrog them and take control of the division.

But it won’t be easy. Atlanta’s upcoming west coast series against San Diego looked a lot tougher before the Padres’ 10-26 freefall since August 11, while the Phillies will look to erase the memories of previous September swoons with a strong final week against the Braves and two teams with a combined winning percentage of .399. Of course, last year’s pandemic-shortened season fell apart in Miami when the Phillies played an insane seven-game series against them and lost five, so beating the bad teams is far from guaranteed. This week’s series win over the Orioles does not engender confidence in their ability to track the Braves down, who have beaten Arizona out in the desert in the first three games of their four-game series by a combined score of 30-7. The Phils squeaked by the O’s by winning two low-scoring, one-run games and hitting a combined .232 with five extra-base hits against a team with a league-worst staff ERA of 5.88.

They have pressed against the expectations of beating weaker opponents.

The lineup is certainly sputtering. Bryce Harper is cementing the NL MVP vote with each passing game, and J.T. Realmuto has come up with huge hits in each of the last two games when Harper was intentionally walked in front of him. Andrew McCutchen hit a key home run in the series finale, his 25th of the season, and Jean Segura is contributing as well, but they have no leadoff hitter, the left side of the infield is a disaster, and an untested but promising rookie in Matt Vierling is sharing ABs at first with journeyman Brad Miller.

The Dodgers, they are not.

The starting rotation should be solid four out of every five days, the fifth being the ridiculous bullpen games the team has chosen to utilize. Zack Wheeler’s dominant season continued on Wednesday, Aaron Nola looked good his last time out, Ranger Suarez has been everything they could have wanted and Kyle Gibson is, well, Kyle Gibson. It’s fine.

They are a team with one superstar, one very good player, one top-level starting pitcher, and then a lot of complimentary pieces, reminiscent of a couple recent World Series winners who didn’t have a lot of star power but found another gear at just the right time.

Anyone who remembers the 1988 Dodgers remembers a team with one superstar, NL MVP Kirk Gibson, one great pitcher, Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershisher, and a number of role players who collectively fit together, sprinkled a bit by pixie dust. Of course, those ‘88 Dodgers won 94 games. They won the National League West. They beat the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and shocked the world when Kirk Gibson blasted them to a five-game World Series title over the heavily favored Oakland A’s. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does show how a top-heavy team, if they play good defense and do the right things on the field, can get into the playoffs.

Perhaps a better comparison is the 2006 Cardinals, who won the NL Central with an 83-78 record. St. Louis was not a hot team going into the playoffs, having gone 25-31 in the season’s final two months, including a 7-game losing streak in the season’s final days that saw their lead in the Central fall from 7 games to just 0.5 before holding on to win the division.

There are many similarities.

Like the Phillies, the Cardinals had two premium position players in NL MVP runner-up (to Ryan Howard) Albert Pujols (8.1 fWAR) and Scott Rolen (5.5 fWAR), a dominant starter in Chris Carpenter (5.0 fWAR), and role players filling things out. Adam Wainwright emerged as a surprise closer for that St. Louis team, while the Phils are riding with the up-and-down Ian Kennedy. But otherwise, the two teams are a near carbon copy of one another.

The biggest difference is the Cardinals were in first place for most of the season and had control of the division deep into September before almost choking it away. The Phillies, meanwhile, keep getting pulled back toward .500, unable to break free of its gravitational pull. Yes, the Phils did pop up on top of the NL East for a couple days back in August after their 8-game winning streak, but that lead was short-lived and they now find themselves with a scant 16.6% chance to make the playoffs and 15.4% chance to win the division, per Fangraphs.

In order for the Phils to reach 83 wins, like the ‘06 Cardinals did, they would need to finish 5-5 in their last 10. Under that scenario, the Braves would have to go 2-8 over their last 10 just for the Phils to tie, and 1-9 for the Phillies to win the division. That’s highly unlikely. It’s far more likely the worst the Braves would do would be to finish 5-5 themselves, which would force the Phillies to go 8-2 to tie them or 9-1 to win the division.

First, however, the Pittsburgh Pirates come to town, and if the Phillies want to duplicate the feats of the ‘88 Dodgers or ‘06 Cardinals, they’ll need to take care of business against their cross-state rivals starting tonight.

And they’ll need more than Harper, Realmuto and Wheeler to pull it off.