Now is a time for heroes.
The Philadelphia Phillies haven’t played postseason baseball in more than a decade but, with 16 games left in the 2022 season, they are heavily favored to end the National League’s longest playoff drought.
They may need the brand new, third wild card to do it (and no one will complain if they do), but with a 2.5-game lead and a tiebreaker over the Milwaukee Brewers for that final spot, the Phils have a 86.5% chance of getting the job done.
It’s all sitting right there for them.
But the Phils enter their final homestand of the season mired in an ill-timed slump. Swept by the Braves in Atlanta over the weekend, they begin a two-game series at Citizens Bank Park against the Toronto Blue Jays in the midst of a four-game losing streak. Meanwhile, at 83-64, Toronto holds a 1.5 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the top wild card spot and a two-game lead over Seattle, who owns WC3. Earning the first wild card would mean Toronto gets to play their opening round opponent at home, while dropping behind the Rays or Mariners means playing all their games on the road in the best-of-three wild card round.
The Jays want that top spot, and they will be in no mood to give anything away this week.
Then the Braves visit Philadelphia for a tough four-game series. The Phils have a 10-6 home record against Atlanta the last two years, much better than their 5-13 record in Georgia, but make no mistake, winning meaningful late-September baseball games against the defending world champions at CBP will be an arduous task.
This is a time for heroes.
Last weekend in Atlanta, Braves superstar outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., who spent most of the first half of the season on the injured list, tortured the Phillies in the first two games of the series. He hit the go-ahead, two-run home run off Seranthony Dominguez that turned a 2-1, 8th-inning Phils lead into a 7-2 loss, then smoked another two-run shot as well as a two-run double, accounting for all four RBIs in Saturday’s 4-3 defeat. He also saved at least one run in that game with a diving catch on a sinking Bryce Harper line drive to right field.
Acuna played the hero for Atlanta when they needed him most. The Phils need their superstars to do the same.
Over the weekend, the Phillies scored seven runs. Alec Bohm led the team with three hits. They had six extra-base hits and four homers, all solo shots. Bryce Harper went 1-for-12, Kyle Schwarber 2-for-11, J.T. Realmuto 1-for-9, Jean Segura 2-for-11 and Rhys Hoskins missed the first two games with a bruised hand but went 0-for-4 in the finale.
These are the big money guys (sans Nick Castellanos, who is still wandering the land of the injured obliques), the guys brought on board to drive what was supposed to be a high-powered offense. And while one can argue the Braves have good pitching, Phillies hitters are going to have to beat good pitching if they can find a way into the October tournament.
If Harper wants to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2015, he must shake out of his funk and be a hero. If Segura wants to end the distinction of the longest-tenured Major League player without a playoff appearance, he has to be a hero. If Realmuto and Hoskins want to play October baseball for the first time in their lives, they have to be heroes. Schwarber has been a postseason hero before, and he has to get hot and do it again.
But it’s not all on the offense. The starting rotation has to be heroes, too.
Aaron Nola was not awful on Saturday. He allowed four earned runs in seven innings of work and, had he received a bit of run support, his start might be viewed differently. But make no mistake, it also wasn’t a good effort, and with Zack Wheeler returning to the rotation in a limited capacity starting Wednesday, the Phils need Nola to be better than not awful. They also need Wheeler to find a superhuman gear in there somewhere and be the ace of the staff once again. They need the rest of the starters — Kyle Gibson, Ranger Suarez, and Noah Syndergaard — to do their jobs.
Frankly, Bailey Falter’s performance over the last month has been the most heroic of the six. They need more there.
And the bullpen needs to protect late, one-run leads. It’s what playoff teams do. Playoff teams do not melt down in the 8th inning of a one-run game, and they do not walk leadoff hitters and unravel, like Dominguez did on Friday night. They are able to keep games close and slam the door shut when needed.
Not everyone on the roster need morph into a hero, although that certainly would be nice. But some of these guys, specifically the star veterans who helped push the payroll north of $230 million this year, have to play heroically over the last two-plus weeks. They need to put the team on their shoulders, play well against good opponents, and prove once and for all that this September won’t be a repeat of the recent past.
This collection of players maintains they are different than previous iterations. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words, and heroes come to play.
Unlike previous Phillies teams, this one is in the driver’s seat, thanks to that third wild card. They are not chasing anyone. Should they go just 10-6 in their last 16 games, Milwaukee would need to go 13-2 to overtake them. If they go 9-7, Milwaukee must go 12-3. Even a split of the final 16 games would see the Brewers have to go 11-4 to knock the Phils out.
It’s all sitting out there for them, waiting to be taken. If this season is to be different, heroes must emerge.