After starting August with a dramatic eight-game win streak that put them atop the NL East, the Philadelphia Phillies have lost back-to-back home series to playoff-contending teams, fallen out of first place in their division, and dropped the series opener to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are one of the worst teams in baseball.
Following Sunday’s loss, many local and national MLB media members were quick to point out the advantage the Phillies will have with the easiest remaining schedule in baseball in terms of opponents’ win percentage.
Given the fire sales that took place ahead of the MLB trade deadline, several of these last-place teams seem to be left barren for the remainder of the 2021 season. The situation logically sets up well for the Phillies to capitalize.
However, the Phillies have never demonstrated the superiority of a team that can overmatch opponents and cruise to victory over lesser competition. This longstanding issue was brought into sharp focus when they lost to the DBacks on Tuesday evening.
The takeaway? The Phillies are not in a position to take anything for granted during this pennant race.
Attitude in the Phillies Clubhouse
Manager Joe Girardi was asked Sunday about the upcoming schedule and how it apparently falls in the Phillies’ favor:
"“I don’t really want to hear that. I don’t want our players to hear that. We have to grind out every game and try to win every game.”"
The former World Series-winning skipper expressed the right attitude. His sentiment was echoed by right-fielder Bryce Harper, who is already considered to be among the veteran leaders in the clubhouse.
The Phillies lost two of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the last-place team in National League Central, just three weeks ago. The Diamondbacks are 39-81 (.325), one of only four teams in MLB this season with a sub-.400 record. Only the Baltimore Orioles have a worse winning percentage (.322).
In 2020, the Phils squandered a golden opportunity to clinch a playoff spot in an eight-team National League field. They stumbled down the stretch by losing five of seven in mid-September against the Miami Marlins, a team with a drastically inferior roster on paper.
There are no guarantees with the Phillies starting rotation, once thought to be the strength of the team. They are counting on the return of a healthy, effective Zach Eflin and proof from Ranger Suárez that he can provide length as a legitimate starter. Their long-time ace, Aaron Nola, has faltered and failed throughout this season.
While the media may be fixated on the weaknesses of the Phillies’ opponents, the team needs to focus on Girardi’s message. If they take games lightly for the remainder of the season, they will not win the NL East.
The True Key to the Phillies Schedule
The Atlanta Braves have caught fire, winning 11 of their last 13 games thanks to the bats of Ozzie Albies and the red-hot Freddie Freeman. They have jumped to a 2 1/2 game lead in the division, and they will also play a considerable number of weaker opponents in the coming weeks.
The New York Mets have hit a rough patch and fallen under .500 for the first time since early May, but they still remain in contention for the division.
The Phillies will face the Mets at Citi Field for a three-game set September 17-19. They’ll face the Braves in Atlanta for three more from September 28-30. The two series will have major implications in the NL East standings. They will be the most crucial of the entire 2021 season.
While the apparent inferiority of some upcoming opponents appears to be an advantage for the Phillies, it will not be the determining factor in the NL East pennant race.