Phillies wandering in September for a fourth straight year

Aug 4, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper (3) scores a run against the Washington Nationals during the third inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 4, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper (3) scores a run against the Washington Nationals during the third inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /
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It had become all too familiar territory for the Philadelphia Phillies and their fans. For the fourth season in a row, the team found itself in a mid-September race to escape definitive mediocrity, possibly post their first winning season since 2011, or actually make the playoffs for the first time since that season.

Great inspiration derived briefly from a 17-8 win over the Cubs at home on Sept. 16. This was apparently the only time in the modern era that an MLB team had come from seven runs down to win by nine.

(Sometimes it seems the Phillies specialize in records only determined computer nerds could discover.)

Would the Phillies take advantage of their easiest week’s schedule on paper?

Great inspiration was also continuously taken from the efforts by star right-fielder Bryce Harper, who was having an MVP season, and no, that’s not “an MVP candidate’s season.” (Whether he wins the award is a separate matter.) Nearly every night he was contributing two or three significant plays that kept his team in their games. In the blow-out of the Cubs he booked a home run, two doubles, and four RBI.

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A win the following night against the Mets, behind ace Zack Wheeler, left the team with only 15 games remaining and an interesting situation: Sweeps of the seven games remaining with the last-place Orioles and Pirates and the loss of all eight of the remaining games with divisional rivals would give the Phillies a winning season – barely.

But that seemed unlikely to put the team in the playoffs, and fans were left muttering things like the tweet-mantra of a producer at WIP, one of Philly’s sports talk radio stations:  “I refuse to get sucked back in by the Phillies…I refuse to get sucked back in by the Phillies…I refuse to get sucked back in by the Phillies….”

A few days after Wheeler’s win, the team record stood at 76-73, and the Orioles were in town. The Phils were two games behind first-place Atlanta, and 3½ games behind the second wild card slot.

The previous evening they had wasted brilliant, first-inning base-running by Harper in a 3-2 loss to New York. Running from first on a pitch to J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies workhorse kept going after rounding third on an ordinary single to left-center, assuming (correctly) that the outfield throw would be to second. He scored with surprising ease.

It was a beautiful day in Philadelphia Sept. 20, however, and the weather at game time was perfect – in the mid-seventies. Left-hander Ranger Suarez faced the O’s best starter, John Means.

This contest was the first of seven in a row Philadelphia against two teams that were a combined 79½ games behind their divisional leaders.

Clearly, that figure did not impress the Phillies, who seemed determined to prove Means a quite decent pitcher despite his team’s 102 losses to date. After giving up a line single to left to Andrew McCutchen in the second inning, the Baltimore lefty retired twelve in a row by the end of the fifth.

He mixed pitches well, but more to the point, Philadelphia just seemed to be wandering through a contest that should have inspired focus. Means had a terrific change-up Monday evening, but his opponents seemed incapable of thinking outside any box imaginable if any of them was guessing about pitches.

The Phillies managed four hits altogether in a 2-0 loss. None belonged to Harper.

The one player under a red cap who didn’t seem to be wandering was Suarez, who gave up both of the Orioles’ runs early, but then buckled down and found his command. Once again, however, the Phillies found themselves in familiar territory, within two games of .500 one way or the other.

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Toward the end of the contest, the sparse September crowd could almost be heard chanting, “I refuse to get sucked back in by the Phillies…I refuse to get sucked back in by the Phillies….”