Last season the Philadelphia Phillies squeaked into the playoffs during the final series of the regular season, only to shock everyone and win the National League pennant, coming two wins short of a World Series title. This year the Phillies have been making noise all season long and are poised to march into the playoffs as one of the hunted rather than a hunter.
With 11 days left in the regular season, the Phillies hold a 2.5-game lead for the top wild card spot in the National League and have a 4.5-game cushion ahead of teams in a non-playoff spot. Five wins should secure a playoff berth for the Phillies and a couple more will lock up that crucial fourth seed for them. Though they might not need to do it themselves, Philadelphia would certainly like to cruise into the postseason rather than sputter and continue their winning ways into October.
Led by a stellar offense and a much-improved bullpen, the Phillies have as good a chance as any team to capture a title this season. Philadelphia showed it can be a different beast during the MLB playoffs last year, carrying the momentum of a first-round upset to the Fall Classic. There's no reason to believe the same won't happen this year, but there are certain scenarios the Phillies could benefit from avoiding in October.
Phillies must clinch the top wild card spot
With the expansion of the MLB playoffs last season, capturing the top wild card spot looked to be more crucial than ever before. The fourth seed in each league hosts a best-of-three series against the fifth seed (second wild card slot), with the winner set to face the division winner with the best regular record in their respective league in the NLDS.
As it turns out, having home-field advantage is a little overrated in the MLB playoffs. Only one of the hosting teams in last year's new wild card format won their first-round series. Furthermore, both the top seeds in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, were bounced by wild card teams in the NLDS. The Phillies reached the World Series as a six-seed.
Why then do the Phillies need to clinch the first wild card position this year? Their projected wild card opponent is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who currently own a 1.5-game lead over the Chicago Cubs for the NL fifth-seed. There's still a possibility, albeit slim, that the D-backs can overtake the Phillies and host that three-game set in Phoenix.
Though the Phillies won three out of four in Arizona earlier this season, they avoided facing Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen. Gallen, along with Arizona's No. 2 Merrill Kelly, has a significantly better ERA at home as opposed to on the road. Kelly has a 4.10 ERA away from home compared to a 2.70 in Phoenix in 2023. Gallen's road ERA is more than two full points higher than his 2.45 ERA at home.
Phillies pitching has faired much better at home this season than on the road as well, especially Aaron Nola. Nola has a 5.43 ERA in 18 road starts in 2023. If Philly wants to make another deep run this postseason, it needs Nola to be at his best and he is clearly more comfortable pitching at home.
The Phillies showed last season that there isn’t a better home-field advantage in baseball than Philadelphia in the playoffs. Getting as many home games as possible from the start is huge for the Phillies in more ways than one.
Avoiding the Dodgers is key
The Dodgers have been the class of the National League for the past decade, winning 90-plus games every season since 2013 – 43 in the 60-game 2020 season – and three pennants. They've been vulnerable at times in the playoffs though, as evidenced by their NLDS loss to the San Diego Padres last October despite winning a franchise-record 111 games in the regular season.
The Dodgers have had the Phillies number in recent years during the regular season and this year is no different. LA won four of the six matchups between the two teams and clobbered Philly pitching, scoring a total of 52 runs, by far the most the Phillies gave up to a non-divisional opponent in 2023.
Offense tends to travel well in baseball, but for some reason the Phillies haven’t been able to get the bats going in LA the last couple of seasons. The Dodgers outscored them 36-11 during a three-game sweep in LA in May.
As it stands now, the Dodgers would be the No. 2 seed in the National League. With the MLB having a fixed bracket for the playoffs, the Phillies would only play the Dodgers if the two teams met in the NLCS if their current standing holds.
Philadelphia has a solid history against LA in the playoffs. The Phillies triumphed in back-to-back NLCS's over the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009. You have to go back to 1978 to find the last time the Dodgers defeated the Phillies in a playoff series.
The Phillies will likely enter the playoffs with a mindset of expecting to beat whoever enters their path. Even a projected NLDS date with the record-setting Atlanta Braves wouldn’t deter Philadelphia. A series against the Dodgers should though. The Phillies have to take care of their own business first, but their grins would probably be a little wider during an NLCS-clinching celebration if they knew they weren’t playing the Dodgers for a trip to the World Series.