Despite September stumble, Phillies still have it all in front of them with 16 games to go

PHILADELPHIA — This time, they didn’t linger in the dugout to watch. This had been fait accompli since May. It wasn’t like 2018 or 2021 when the Phillies had to witness a Braves title-clinching celebration. They were as close as 2 1/2 games in September 2018 and 1 1/2 games with seven to play in 2021. Both times Atlanta, the standard-bearer in the National League East, flaunted their dominance in the Phillies’ faces.

Maybe it felt different this time because it was at Citizens Bank Park. As the Braves partied on the grass, the scoreboard showed a congratulatory message. It wasn’t until then that many fans inside the ballpark realized what was happening because most assumed it had already happened.

It wasn’t heartbreaking like before. It was just another reminder of the work that lies ahead for these Phillies.

“They’ve been really good the whole year,” Kyle Schwarber said of the 96-win Braves. “Do we want it to be on our field? No. But they’re going to have to do it somewhere. The focus is on us still. We have to keep pushing to the very end.”

The Braves celebrate after clinching their sixth consecutive NL East title. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

The current snapshot is not ideal, but the Phillies still find themselves in enviable position after Wednesday’s 4-1 loss because the rest of the league is sputtering. They are on pace to equal their 87 wins from a season ago, but they occupy the No. 4 seed in the NL this time. Everyone behind them has major flaws. (The sixth seed is on pace for a mere 84 wins in 2023.) Their 1 1/2-game lead over the Cubs for the No. 4 spot — and home-field advantage in the wild-card round — is effectively 2 1/2 games because the Phillies hold the tiebreaker.

There are 16 more games to play.

“We have to get after it in St. Louis,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “Get after those guys. And we’ll bounce back. This group’s resilient. All year. I don’t think it’s going to affect their preparation or the way they compete. They’re just going to go out there and play their game.”

It would not be September without fretting about the Phillies. It’s embedded deep in this franchise’s fabric. The Phillies can be many things — more talented than a season ago, still filled with reasonable questions, and probably dangerous come October. They have not been demolished during a 5-8 start to September. They have been in most games and, in almost every case, they have played a decent brand of baseball. They are not fumbling the ball.

If anything, they are making this harder than it needs to be. Maybe this looks different in four days after the Phillies have a weekend in St. Louis while two teams chasing them, the Cubs and Diamondbacks, face each other in Arizona. The Phillies really wanted to find some rest for their relievers leaking oil and, in the past week, they have found ways to accomplish that. They have reset the bullpen.

They can arrange the rotation how they want now. Aaron Nola, Ranger Suárez and Taijuan Walker will start at Busch Stadium. Zack Wheeler will pitch Monday in Atlanta. He’ll likely be followed there by Cristopher Sánchez, who struck out a career-high 10 batters in a career-high 7 1/3 innings Wednesday night against the potent Braves. He surrendered four runs — two of them on a poorly located sinker to Austin Riley in the first — but it was an eye-opening performance.

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Cristopher Sánchez struck out 10 on Wednesday. He could make three more starts down the stretch. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Sánchez has a 3.40 ERA in 87 1/3 innings. He has struck out 30 and walked two in his last five starts (29 innings). He flung 47 changeups at the Braves, who swung and missed at 18 of them. That pitch has matured as Sánchez added body strength and focused on strike-throwing.

“His arm action makes it really deceptive,” Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “On top of that, the speed differential from his fastball to his changeup is really good. The depth on it is incredible. And even when it’s up in the zone, it has really good horizontal movement as well. If it’s up, it’s going to fade away off the plate. If it’s on the plate, it’s going to spin down. It has a lot to do with his arm angle and the spin he gets on it.”

“That kid’s tough,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That changeup is real.”

It’s a pitch that has forced the Phillies to rethink Sánchez’s role. At this point, he’s a better option every fifth day than Michael Lorenzen, who could transition to a bullpen role as soon as this weekend in St. Louis. Lorenzen has been a reliever before and if the Phillies envision him filling that role in October, then it’s best to see it now.

Sánchez is probably not a pitcher the Phillies would trust to start a postseason game — at least not in the opening three-game series — but he’s at least entering the conversation.

“That’s going to be a key arm for us as we keep going down the stretch,” Schwarber said.

And that’s important, too. Sánchez, as of now, would have three more regular-season starts — at Atlanta and two against the Mets. New York has not hit lefty pitching this year. Even if Sánchez doesn’t have a significant postseason, he can provide a boost by finishing strong.

The rotation has Wheeler making three more starts with his last one on either Sept. 28 or Sept. 29. If he pitches on Sept. 28, that would be five days before Game 1 of the first round. That is Game 159 and, by then, the Phillies hope to have clinched the No. 4 seed. There will be a robust debate about how the Phillies should operate in the season’s final weekend if they are assured a postseason spot but haven’t clinched home-field advantage. Last week, Thomson said they would use their guys and go for the fourth seed — no matter the potential cost.

They backed into the postseason in 2022. They’d rather forge an easier path this September.

“You always have experience, right?” Schwarber said. “Experience is great. We can have things to lean back on. We want it to be a different September. I don’t think we want it to be a September where we’re losing and trying to find a way. We want to flip the script and we want to make sure we’re going to be taking care of business. The signs are there. Everything is there. We just have to keep going out there and keep fighting and keep doing it.”

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The Phillies will see Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Braves again next week, and perhaps in October. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

The Braves took care of business. They will not play a game with real meaning until Oct. 7. Maybe it’s against the Phillies. The gap between the two franchises is wide, but a five-game series has a funny way of evening fates. The Phillies and Braves both know this.

Until then, the Phillies have some issues to solve.

“It is what it is,” Schwarber said. “It’s not like it’s uncompetitive losses, right? We’ve been in every single game. That’s the positive thing to take out of it.”

(Top photo of Kyle Schwarber: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

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