Phillies are facing a scary playoff scenario, and a huge series against the Giants
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Phillies are facing a scary playoff scenario, and a huge series against the Giants

Aug 21, 2023

Want to inject a little stress into the stretch run?

Look at the Phillies’ track record at Oracle Park. Then imagine them needing to win two wild-card games there.

You can bet it’s a scenario Rob Thomson has thought about. Just look at who he’ll have available to start during next week’s three-game series between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants at Citizens Bank Park. Right now, his rotation lines up for Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola to handle two of the games. He’ll also have the option of starting Michael Lorenzen on normal rest on Wednesday.

» READ MORE: A no-hitter origin story: How the Phillies’ trade for Michael Lorenzen came together

This might not be the series you had originally circled as the season’s biggest. But think about the stakes. The Phillies and Giants entered Thursday as the top two teams in the NL wild-card standings, which would set them up to face each other in the opening round of the playoffs. At the moment, the Phillies are the higher seed, which means they’d host the proceedings. But the Giants are only two games back, which means they could enter next week’s series with a chance to change things.

This isn’t your average home-field advantage we are talking about. The Phillies haven’t won a game in San Francisco since June 2021. Their current seven-game losing streak at Oracle Park is part of a 2-14 mark that dates to 2018.

Their struggles aren’t just happenstance. Oracle Park is one of the more punitive environments in baseball, particularly for teams built like the Phillies. The heavy marine air that drifts in off the bay makes the outfield a place where fly balls go to die. The ones that don’t die often end up rattling around the park’s oddly angled walls. More than a few players will tell you that the outfield is the toughest to play defense on in the majors, particularly in right field. It’s a big enough factor that Thomson would have some serious decisions to make with how to deploy Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, Brandon Marsh, and Johan Rojas.

» READ MORE: Why Michael Lorenzen’s pitch count was such a concern in his no-hitter

Beyond the ballpark, the Phillies would have to contend with a Giants pitching staff that has been the best in the majors against lefties this season. Their .663 OPS against left-handed hitters is tops in the sport. Only the Texas Rangers have allowed fewer home runs against lefties. The Giants’ wild-card bullpen would likely include four lefties who have combined to hold southpaws to a .172/.289/.306 battling line with strikeouts in nearly a third of their at-bats.

The Giants enter next week’s series with the playoff tiebreaker over the Phillies thanks to their three-game sweep at Oracle Park in May. The Phillies could eliminate that edge by returning the favor. Thomson has yet to announce his rotation beyond this weekend, so there’s no guarantee that Lorenzen ends up joining Nola and Wheeler against the Giants in a series that begins Monday. Taijuan Walker’s potential return from a bout with a dead arm could give Thomson the option of giving his big three an extra day of rest.

However it shakes out, the Phillies may not get a better chance to boost their World Series odds than they’ll have next week. The Phillies don’t necessarily need to avoid the Giants in the playoffs. They just need to avoid them on the road.

Since we’re already getting ahead of ourselves ...

The wild-card series may be a moot point in light of what the Braves and Dodgers are doing.

Braves since June 3: 45-18, 6.6 runs per game, 2.2 home runs per game, .899 OPS.

Dodgers since June 20: 34-13, 6.1 runs per game, 1.5 home runs per game, .827 OPS

Everyone knows what the Braves have been doing all season. They are on pace to obliterate the single-season home run record of 307 set by the Twins in 2019. Their 232 dingers through 120 games are already more than all but 56 teams have hit in a season in the last 50 years. Their current pace is 313 home runs, but that has ticked upward throughout this 2½-month tear, when they have averaged more than two homers a game. Their current 122 OPS+ would be the second-best mark in the expansion era, behind only the 2017 Astros (123).

» READ MORE: A no-hitter, a Texas breakfast, and the surprising story of a young Aaron Nola and an old Cole Hamels

The numbers are just silly.

Eight games with five-plus home runs, 17 with four-plus, 35 with three-plus.

10-plus runs in 14% of their games (17/120)

Six-plus runs in half of their games.

As loud as those fireworks are, they shouldn’t drown out what the Dodgers are doing. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the Braves would be the lesser of two evils for the Phillies, especially in a five-game series.

A lot depends on where things go from here for Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urias, two lefty starters of the ilk that they mostly avoided last postseason. Kershaw just returned from a stint on the IL, while Urias is 5-1 with a 3.51 ERA with 44 strikeouts and eight walks in 41 innings over his last seven starts.

» READ MORE: Inside the swing adjustment that accelerated Johan Rojas’ path to the majors with the Phillies

The Phillies have actually hit better in games started by lefties than they have in games started by righties. But aggregate numbers don’t necessarily apply to small samples like the postseason. The pitchers who have shut this team down have been inordinately left-handed. Of the eight games when they’ve struck out 14 times, five have been started by lefties. That includes a 14-strikeout performance against the Dodgers, 10 of them by Urias, who held them to one hit and one walk in seven innings.

Daunting? Absolutely.

Then again, both the Braves and the Dodgers were pretty darn good last year.