Don’t Look Now: Phillies and Brewers Back in NL Wild Card Race


The Philadelphia Phillies hadn’t seen .500 since June 4. Aty the July Trade Deadline, they shipped off their starting center fielder, Shane Victorino, their starting right fielder, Hunter Pence, and their fourth starter, Joe Blanton. They were written off for dead.

The Milwaukee Brewers started the season in a hole when Mat Gamel, their replacement for Prince Fielder, came up injured early. Their bullpen, a strength of last season’s divisional champion club, has been a mess all year long with neither John Axford nor Francisco Rodriguez being effective in closing games. They hadn’t sniffed the break-even mark since April. At the deadline, they traded away their ace, Zack Greinke.

Ryan Braun is making a strong case for another NL MVP award. Image: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

At yet, as play begins on September 12, with 20 games left in the season, both the Phillies and Brewers stand at 71-71 and both sit a mere four games out of the second wild card spot in the National League.

While the turnaround in Philly has been remarkable, you could almost see it coming. All-stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard missed most of the first-half of the season and Roy Halladay spent time on the disabled list as well. All of a sudden, Howard and Utley returned and transformed a stagnant offensive attack with their presence and production. Cole Hamels has been one of the best in baseball this season and though he has just four victories, Cliff Lee has pitched well also.

Everyone knew that when the Phillies got healthy, they would be a team to reckon with. No one knew if they had enough time left in the season to make a serious run at the playoffs. It turns out that they did. It shouldn’t stop here, either. Philadelphia will finish up a series with the Marlins on Wednesday before taking on the Astros and Mets in their next two series.

The Brewers seemed even less likely to join the playoff chase in 2012. Through injuries and departures from the roster, Milwaukee seemed all but resigned to playing for 2013. But a funny thing happened on the way to apathy; the Brewers stopped losing.

Winners of 17 of their last 22 games, Milwaukee has followed the lead of reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun, who has made a strong case to win the award again this year. Corey Hart has made a smooth transition to first base and is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, Aramis Ramirez has helped to make up for the loss of Fielder’s bat, and lately the bullpen has righted the ship. Shaun Marcum‘s return to the rotation has helped, and Yovani Gallardo has stepped into the role of ace of the staff.

The Braves hold a five game edge for the first Wild Card slot, so it looks like they’ll be in when October rolls around. The Cardinals seem to be taking on water after dropping the first two games in San Diego. Pittsburgh and Los Angeles have done nothing to gain ground when the opportunities have been there. The Brewers have ridden a thunderous offensive attack and solid pitching to a spot in the conversation. Philadelphia has done it with the return of some savvy veterans and a starting rotation that can out-pitch anyone they face.

If I had to pick only one of these teams to walk down the Cardinals, my money would be on Philadelphia. And if they get in, look out. Not only do they have the guns to win a one-game wild card scenario, but their pitching can carry them deep into the post-season.

The Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates had every opportunity to run away and hide earlier in the season, but they’ve hung around mediocrity long enough to allow a pair of sleeping giants to return to the party.

And all of a sudden, a boring NL playoff race just got very, very interesting.