Are the Phillies NL East contenders again?

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Are the Phillies NL East contenders again?

Charlie Manuel has a way about him. You’ve probably noticed. Things he does. Things he says. Things he believes.

One of his favorite talking points is as simple as it is true. You’ve heard him repeat some variation of the same thing almost every year for various reasons. The thought, distilled to its essence, goes like this: to be a good team, you have to beat good teams. Or, put in the parlance of his friend Ric Flair, to be the man, you have to beat the man.

These Phillies need to beat a lot of men and a lot of teams between now and the trade deadline if they hope to work their way into the playoff conversation (if not the actual race itself). You know it. The players know it. Manuel certainly knows it. On Thursday, the manager dusted off one of his favorite truisms, repurposed it for the here and now, and summed up the Phillies’ current situation nicely.

“There comes a time, if you’re going to be a playoff-contending team, you’re going to have to beat some good pitchers along the way,” Manuel said before the Phils faced excellent Nationals hurler Jordan Zimmermann. “And we’re supposed to beat some good pitchers at times. I know Zimmermann is a good pitcher. I like him. I like everything about him. But at the same time, I have seen us score runs on him. I think that we have enough left-handed hitting to score runs on him. Hopefully we can do it.”

They did it -- barely. The Phillies pushed two earned runs across the plate against Zimmermann in their 3-1 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see game recap).

Kyle Kendrick pitched an excellent game and got the win. Jonathan Papelbon came on to get the save. But the Phillies had four errors, and it took yet another pinch-hit RBI by Kevin Frandsen to put them ahead late. It was a tense night. But the Phillies won -- the game and the series. Lately, they’ve made a habit of doing the latter. The Phils have won four of their last five series.

It has been a while since the Phillies played well enough to make you check the out-of-town scores each night. That is the fun part of baseball -- the standings and the race and the long slog toward the playoffs. It has been a while since the Phils were good enough to prompt that kind of behavior.

That’s what the Phils have done recently -- they’ve made themselves relevant again. They are 24-14 against the NL East, the best record of any club in the division. You can understand, then, why general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said “no one is running away” with the division and “no one is invincible," (see story).

Which leads us back to the buy or sell question that’s been asked repeatedly for the last few weeks. With the way the Phils are playing, it’s hard to imagine Amaro giving up on a team that just took a series from the Braves and another from the Nationals.

“I considered us less of a contender last year,” Amaro said. “We’re in a better spot this year.”


That’s a hard point to argue. But what might it take for the Phils to actually make the playoffs?

“That second wild card, if you look at it, you might stand a chance of getting in at a mid-80s win [total], something like that -- 84, 86, 87,” Manuel said. “There’s been teams that got in the playoffs before playing three or four over .500 or something like that. With the second wild card, that’s kind of the structure it adds -- mid-80s to high-80s might get you that second wild-card berth.

“I’ve always looked at winning the division. I thought if you win enough games, the other things, the wild card, would take care of themselves. I think it’s going to take, in this division here, probably 88 to 92 wins. Somewhere in that area. If some team wins 93 to 95, they’re definitely going to win this division.”

Forget 93 or 95 wins. Forget 92. Even with how well they’ve played, those numbers seem well out of reach. Let’s go with something more realistic. We’ll use the 88 wins Manuel referenced as a starting point.

The Phillies are 46-47. They have 69 games remaining. To reach 88 wins, they have to go 42-27 the rest of the way. That’s a .642 clip. For a team that’s still under .500, that seems like a big chore. But considering how the Phillies have played of late, it’s possible to imagine a future in which they’re among the teams pushing toward the playoffs.

But that’s for later. For now, the Phillies won another game and another series. They’re relevant again. That will do for the moment.

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies’ bullpen continued its ugly, late-season collapse on Tuesday night. It was tagged for six runs in a 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves rallied for the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
 
The loss came two days after the bullpen gave up 14 earned runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday and it left manager Pete Mackanin more than a little bit frustrated.
 
“The bullpen has just not been doing the job,” Mackanin said.
 
Jerad Eickhoff gave up just one run (on a solo homer by Freddie Freeman) over four walk-free innings to open the game. He was up 6-1 after four innings when the rains came and stopped the game for an hour and 53 minutes.
 
With Eickhoff bounced by the weather, Mackanin had to go to his bullpen. He used four relievers — Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez and David Hernandez — and all gave up runs.
 
Phillies relievers have pitched 77 1/3 innings this month and allowed 69 earned runs for an ERA of 8.03. So that’s one more thing Matt Klentak has to fix this winter, along with the offense that Mackanin wants to see addressed (see story).
 
Ultimately, Hernandez took the loss when he gave up three hits and a run in the bottom of the eighth. The other run in the inning was charged to Rodriguez.
 
As unbelievable as it may sound with rosters being expanded in September, the Phillies played this game shorthanded.
 
They did not have reliever Edubray Ramos. He had a sore elbow, Mackanin said.
 
They did not have outfielder Peter Bourjos, who had gone home to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
 
They also did not have outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who is out with a concussion.
 
Not having Bourjos or Goeddel forced Mackanin to use Darin Ruf in left field after Roman Quinn went out with an oblique injury in the sixth inning. Ruf failed to make a catch on a long fly ball by Tyler Flowers to the gap in left-center. The non-play extended the eighth inning and fueled the Braves’ comeback.
 
“It should have been caught,” Mackanin said. “If Quinn's out there, he catches it. He wasn't out there.”
 
Hernandez was the only free agent that the Phillies signed to a major-league contract this winter. The Phillies signed him with an eye toward using him as the closer. But Hernandez struggled much of the season and slipped into the middle innings while Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez rose to high-leverage roles.
 
Gomez lost the closer’s job last week and Mackanin was saving Neris to close out this game. That meant Hernandez had to pitch the eighth. He couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up the game-tying hit to Mallex Smith and the go-ahead hit to Emilio Bonafacio.
 
“Neris was going to close for us,” Mackanin said. “I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That's unheard of.”
 
The bullpen’s unraveling threw cold (rain) water on Eickhoff’s solid start and Ryan Howard’s big night. Howard belted his 24th homer, a grand slam in the first inning, to highlight a 14-hit attack and help the Phils jump to a 6-0 lead.
 
“Eickhoff looked like he was having one of his best games and then the rain came. So that was our first disappointment,” Mackanin said. "Other than that, Howie swung the bat great. Hit that grand slam. We got 14 hits, but we stranded 12 runners. We have to keep adding on.”
 
Quinn had three of the Phillies’ 14 hits then added to his collection of injuries with the oblique strain that bounced him from the game in the sixth. He hurt himself taking a swing.
 
Oblique injuries generally keep a player sidelined for at least three weeks, so Quinn’s season is likely over. He missed six weeks with a similar injury at Double A Reading this summer. The 23-year-old outfielder came up from the minors on Sept. 11 and has been auditioning for a spot on next season’s opening day roster.
 
“It looks like it,” Mackanin said when asked if Quinn was done for what remains of the season.
 
Injuries have been a consistent hurdle for Quinn ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. He has missed significant time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a wrist injury that required surgery, a torn quad muscle and an oblique strain. Now he has another one.
 
“It’s the same one I hurt before,” Quinn said. “It’s frustrating.”
 
Right now, just about everything is frustrating with this team. Good thing there are only five games left.

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Best of MLB: Blue Jays beat Orioles in opener of AL wild-card showdown

Best of MLB: Blue Jays beat Orioles in opener of AL wild-card showdown

TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson hit a two-run homer, Aaron Sanchez struck out 10 and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 on Tuesday night in the opener of their AL wild-card showdown.

Ezequiel Carrera also homered as the Blue Jays won for the sixth time in eight games. They lead the wild-card standings by two games over the Orioles with five to play.

Baltimore began the day two games ahead of Detroit and Seattle for the league's final playoff spot.

Orioles slugger Chris Davis was ejected for arguing with plate umpire Will Little after striking out against Joe Biagini in the seventh, the third time in three at-bats Davis was caught looking. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter also was tossed after he came out to argue (see full recap).

Syndergaard, Mets pound grieving Marlins
MIAMI -- With time running out in the playoff race, the New York Mets set sympathy aside.

Noah Syndergaard struck out eight and allowed one run in six innings Tuesday night, and the Mets totaled 19 hits to beat the grieving Miami Marlins 12-1.

Jay Bruce and Yoenis Cespedes each hit his 31st homer for the Mets, who began the game with a half-game lead over the Giants in the battle for the first NL wild-card berth, with the Cardinals 1 1/2 games behind.

The game was the Marlins' second since the death of ace Jose Fernandez in a boating accident. One night after a heart-tugging victory over New York filled with tributes to their teammate, emotions were more subdued, and Miami's bats were too.

Syndergaard (14-9) had a lot to do with that. After missing a scheduled start Saturday with strep throat, he threw 93 pitches and lowered his ERA to 2.60, third-best in the majors. He'll return to pitch the regular-season finale Sunday at Philadelphia if needed (see full recap).

Cards beat Reds to tighten wild-card race
ST. LOUIS -- Playing with a heavy heart, Aledmys Diaz hit his first career grand slam and the St. Louis Cardinals finished with five home runs Tuesday night in a 12-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Chasing the Giants and Mets in a tight race for the two NL wild cards, St. Louis moved within a half-game of San Francisco for the league's final playoff spot -- pending the Giants' late game against Colorado.

New York, which beat Miami 12-1, leads the wild-card standings and remained 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals.

Jhonny Peralta had a three-run homer and drove in four runs for the Cardinals, who had lost four of five. Matt Carpenter, Randal Grichuk and Matt Adams also homered (see full recap).