Why Game 160 should be the deadline for the Phillies to clinch a playoff berth – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Science & Technology

The Phillies’ best chance in the playoffs is with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola starting Games 1 and 2. And that will mean shortening up the season.
When you’ve wandered the desert for 10 years, the timing of when you come upon an oasis surely matters less than simply finding it in the first place. Unless, of course, other challenges lie ahead. In that case, it’s best to take the most direct route possible to the water, chug away, and keep moving.
The Phillies, as you may know, haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years. A wild card is in their grasp despite a four-game losing streak entering Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, the opener of the final regular-season homestand. But with two weeks to go, it would behoove them to clinch the elusive playoff spot no later than Game 160.
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Otherwise, sipping from the oasis may quench their thirst but won’t give them even a puncher’s chance to survive the rest of the journey.
When it’s all over — after the wild-card series or the divisional round, later or (gulp) sooner — a question will be posed: What constitutes a successful season for the Phillies? Was it enough to end the longest active postseason drought in the National League, if they end it? Or, given the club-record $240 million payroll and the luxury tax bill that’s attached, did they need to do more?
Judging by the September crowds at Citizens Bank Park, it will take more than the prospect, even the likelihood, of a wild-card berth in an expanded playoff field to turn back the clock to 2011 and prove that the Phillies are more than the third-best team in their own division.
There will be time to have that debate and loop in all the principals, from owner John Middleton to president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and even Bryce Harper. But the Phillies can speak loudly with their play over the next two weeks. Put a foot on the pedal and run over people, to paraphrase interim manager Rob Thomson’s July dictate, and they will show that a spot in the tournament isn’t enough. Make things interesting down the stretch and, well, maybe they’re happy to just get there.
Because advancing beyond the best-of-three wild-card series, whether it’s against the St. Louis Cardinals or the Atlanta Braves or even the New York Mets (all three games on the road), will require two things: one, Zack Wheeler must be healthy; two, Wheeler and Aaron Nola must start the first two games.
There will be more clarity on Wheeler’s status Wednesday night. He’s expected to return from the injured list and face the Blue Jays in his first start since Aug. 20. (More on that in a bit.) If he makes his remaining starts on turn, the ace right-hander would pitch again next Tuesday night in Chicago and Oct. 2 in Washington before lining up to start Game 1 of the wild-card series on regular rest on Oct. 7.
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Nola is scheduled to start Friday night at home against the Braves and Sept. 29 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. His next start would be Oct. 4 in Houston, the penultimate game of the season.
If it’s anything more than what baseball people call a “touch-and-feel,” a glorified bullpen session in a meaningless game against an Astros powerhouse that will have the top seed in the American League sewn up by then, Nola wouldn’t be available to start on regular rest until Game 3 of the wild-card series. That’s assuming the Phillies aren’t ousted by then or don’t push him on three days’ rest in Game 2.
(Nola has never started on less than four days’ rest, even though he has made more starts than any pitcher in baseball since 2018.)
And before anyone argues that the Phillies would be better off not letting Nola and his career 4.47 ERA in September/October anywhere near a playoff series, consider this: The Cardinals, led by dual MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, slug .472 with an .821 OPS against left-handed pitchers, compared to .411 and .732 against righties; the Braves, with Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley, and Dansby Swanson, have a heavy right-handed lineup, too.
So, what are the Phillies’ chances of putting a bow on a wild-card spot before Nola has to give them six or seven innings in Game 161?
Entering Tuesday night, they led the Milwaukee Brewers by 2½ games (3½, including the tiebreaker) for the final wild-card spot. Any combination of 14 Phillies wins and Brewers losses (from a total of 27 games between Tuesday and Oct. 4) would take the champagne off ice before Nola takes the mound.
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Doable? Maybe. But only if the Phillies play better against good teams. Toronto was 19 games above .500 entering Tuesday; Atlanta, which comes to town for four games starting Thursday night after sweeping the Phillies last weekend, was 37 over. The Phillies played only 15 games against winning teams since the All-Star break and were 5-10.
A solid return from Wheeler would help settle stomachs. When the Phillies placed him on the injured list in late August, Dombrowski said the ace would miss only two starts. It turned into five because of elbow inflammation.
The Phillies have been coy about how many pitches Wheeler will throw against the Jays. He threw about 55 pitches, including warmups, in a simulated game Friday in Atlanta.
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“It’ll be shorter at the beginning,” Wheeler said last week. “As long as I’m at 90 pitches and seven innings by the time the playoffs roll around, I’ll be fine.”
The Phillies have always thought so. From the start, team officials contended that the club could be dangerous in the postseason if Wheeler and Nola are able to start Games 1 and 2.
It’s up to the Phillies now to make that happen by treating the season like it’s 160 games — and not a single day more.

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