The Philadelphia Phillies lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday and had the opening game of a three-game season-ending set at New York rained out on Friday. None of that mattered as the surprise defending National League Champions from 2022 had already clinched home-field advantage in the National League Wild Card round.
Philadelphia has the third-best odds to win the NL in 2023 at +600 on DraftKings Sportsbook. They are not favored over the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Phillies should be regarded as a team that no one wants to face in the postseason.
During the unforgettable ’22 campaign, Philadelphia finished with 87 wins but surged after a slow start to win 65 of its final 111 games. They then took nine of 11 postseason games on a magical run to the NL pennant. This season has been a different story, as starting pitcher Zack Wheeler pointed out when considering the team’s road to 89 wins heading into the final regular season series.
“Last year, we weren’t really where we wanted to be early on, so we felt like we were always chasing something. This year, we put ourselves in a little better position,” Wheeler told The Game Day Baseball.
“We’ve got the Braves in front of us in the division, but Wild Card-wise, we were in the position we wanted to be in. Last year, we felt like we were fighting the whole time to get where we wanted to be.”
So, as the Phillies prepped for what amounted to a meaningless final trio of games against the Mets, they could look ahead to their home playoff opener on Tuesday, Oct. 3. After engineering a ride to the World Series last year, Wheeler and his teammates already well know that once the postseason begins, they have as good a chance as anyone to reach the Fall Classic again.
”People have always said that once you get into the playoffs, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so that’s your goal, to get in and make it all the way to the World Series. It’s a matter of getting hot at the right time,” he said.
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The 33-year-old right-hander said he was not surprised that his squad was a title contender in 2022.
“I knew we had the team. We just didn’t play well or play consistently throughout the season to be a division leader or one of the top Wild Card spots,” he said.
The 2023 Phillies are in a more comfortable position for the NL Wild Card round, yet there are definite parallels to last season’s team, one that will be forever etched into the memories of the fan base. The ’22 Phillies began to catch fire in June; the same is true for the ’23 version.
I will not consider stats from the Thursday loss to Pittsburgh in this feature to better reflect how well the Phillies have played after the month of May. Entering play on Thursday, over their last 101 games (since June 3), the Phillies were 64-37 and had outscored the opposition 541-413 during that span.
Philadelphia’s .634 winning percentage since June 3 ranked second in MLB. Their win over the Pirates on Wednesday moved the Phillies to 20 games over .500 for the first time since the final day of the 2011 season.
Wheeler looked back on the team’s 23-29 start and admitted that this year’s Phillies hadn’t been able to put it all together over the first two months of the season.
“We just weren’t consistent early on. Pitchers were pitching well, and hitters weren’t hitting well, or hitters were hitting, and pitchers weren’t pitching well,” he said.
But beginning in early June, as seems to be the custom for Philadelphia now, both sides of the team found common successful ground and once again looked like a true playoff qualifier over the next four months.
“It felt like we finally got everyone on the same page, close enough to the point where we started to win some ball games consistently. If everybody plays well and you’re consistent, you win a lot of ball games,” Wheeler said.
“We’ve been doing that ever since, for the most part. We’ve had a really good post-All-Star break run, and hopefully, we can keep that up.”
In August, the Phillies won 17 of 27 games, on their way to ultimately setting up Tuesday’s Wild Card game in front of the home crowd. The Phillies have a 22-11 all-time playoff record at Citizens Bank Park, and their .667 home postseason winning percentage is tied for the best ever among MLB teams to play 30-plus playoff games at a home venue.
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We can expect a frenzied atmosphere stirred by Phillies fans who helped the team reach the 3,000,000 attendance mark for the first time in 10 years. Philadelphia’s increase in attendance from last year of 9,500 fans per game is the highest of any team in the Majors.
The players certainly realize the impact their supporters can have on the team, acting as a “10th player” of sorts. Wheeler credited the fans for helping boost the outlook of Trea Turner, who was hitting .236 at the end of May with five home runs and seven steals and has since pushed his stat line to .266/26/30.
“Trea’s swinging the bat really well, and it’s fun to watch and be a part of, especially here in Philly where these fans just love him,” Wheeler said. “He struggled a little bit in the beginning, but the fans sure picked him up, and he reacted very well to it.”
From June 3 to Sept. 27 (with MLB rankings in parentheses), the Phillies slashed .258 (ninth)/.333 (sixth)/.456 (fourth) with a .790 OPS (fifth).
“We have a really good lineup, and I knew that coming into the season,” Wheeler said. “This lineup can take us pretty far.”
Leadoff man Kyle Schwarber has a .197 batting average, but his other stats and teammates suggest he is doing his job well. After games on Wednesday, Schwarber ranked second in MLB this year in both walks (124) and walk rate (17.6%),
After Schwarber was moved back to the leadoff spot on June 2, the Phillies were 64-38 (.627 win %). He set a franchise record with 10 leadoff homers in a season, breaking Jimmy Rollins’ record of nine set in 2007, on his way to tying last year’s career-high of 46 HRs.
“Schwarber is not your typical leadoff guy, but you walk out there with a 1-0 lead, that is pretty comforting to know,” Wheeler said. “I really don’t care what his batting average is if he’s hitting 40-plus home runs a year.”
Other notable offensive numbers to absorb that reflect the depth of the lineup included Alec Bohm slashing .375/.427/.542 with a .968 OPS and 35 RBI with runners in scoring position from June 30 to Sept. 27, and Brandon Marsh posting a 524 OBP in August, the highest such mark in that month since 1977.
Last Sunday, Bryson Stott became the first Phillie since Ben Revere in 2014 to steal 30 bases.
“Bohm, Stott, and Marsh are swinging it really well and have been consistent throughout the season,” Wheeler said.
The axis of the lineup, Bryce Harper, who has been at first base this season after returning in May from Tommy John surgery last November, is hitting .295 with 21 homers, 72 RBI, and 11 steals. Last year, Harper hit 18 homers in 99 games, but this year’s overall HR mark in comparison may be deceiving, as he hit 16 homers in August and September and may be getting closer to top form in time for the playoffs.
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“Bryce is Bryce. Maybe the power numbers have dipped a little bit, but he came back early from Tommy John surgery,” Wheeler said.
“That’s got to be pretty hard, to come back as early as he did, and I think a lot of people forget that. But he’s still been hitting a lot of home runs lately.”
The starting rotation has also done its part to get the Phillies into favorable wild-card positioning. The team ERA of 3.63 entering play on Thursday was second in MLB. Over Philadelphia’s 101 games from June 3 to Sept. 27, the starting staff’s ERA of 3.79 ranked third in MLB, and the bullpen’s 3.34 ERA also ranked third.
Aaron Nola’s 4.46 ERA is his second-highest in the last seven years. Still, the xFIP of 3.63 Is a positive sign, and Wheeler expects to see the same guy in the postseason who opened the 2022 playoffs with two wins while allowing zero runs in 12.2 innings pitched.
“He’s been doing it for a long time now,” Wheeler said. “You got a little taste of it in the playoffs last year in big games.”
“He had a good September last year (2.93 ERA, 36 strikeouts in 27.2 innings pitched), and it carried into the playoffs. I think he’ll be just fine.”
Wheeler and Nola are the only pair of MLB starting pitchers with 200-plus strikeouts this season. Wheeler was a key figure on the Philadelphia journey back to the playoffs.
The 2021 All-Star came into Wednesday’s start, leading all MLB pitchers in fWAR at 5.8, and his K/BB rate of 5.45 was second in the NL. The Phillies have won 13 of Wheeler’s last 20 starts, while his 21 quality starts tied a career high.
Like the rest of the Phillies, Wheeler apparently gets better as the season progresses. He had a 3.12 ERA in his first 13 second-half starts this year, and since 2018, he had a 2.80 ERA in his last 59 second-half starts prior to Wednesday.
“I feel like as the season goes on, I’ll always get stronger,” Wheeler said. “I’d rather have a good first half, too, but the second half kind of counts a little bit more.
“When you’re in that playoff push, they need good quality starts from me. I’ve been able to do that the past few years.”
The Phillies’ success over the past two seasons coincided with Rob Thomson moving from bench coach to manager last June. He has been with the organization since 2018 and is the first of 56 managers in franchise history to reach the playoffs in his first two years as a skipper.
Wheeler is tremendously confident that with everything else in place personnel-wise, Thomson is the perfect leader to guide the team on another strong playoff run.
“He knows how to handle guys and how to handle a locker room,” Wheeler said.” He does well with the in-game stuff because he was a bench coach.
“He’s stepped in and done well with those in-game decisions, and he’s managed the bullpen really well.”