Don’t sleep on the Phillies: Why the National League playoff field isn’t just a two-horse race

The Phillies sit comfortably in the NL's top wild-card spot, and their presence in October should once again make the rest of the field a little uncomfortable

The recent showdown between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers was rightfully billed as a potential NLCS preview. It featured, after all, the two best teams in the National League by record and World Series odds — and the top four NL MVP contenders.

You don’t have to think too far back, though, to realize the folly in narrowing your focus to the best regular-season performers. Just last year, the Philadelphia Phillies squeaked into the postseason with an 87-win campaign, then powered their way to the World Series. This year’s Phillies are more comfortably in wild-card position, and their expected presence in the level-set world of October baseball should once again make the sport’s best more than a little uncomfortable.

“Slow start, star injuries, holes to fill, late peak” isn’t exactly a formula you’d put on repeat for your baseball team, given the choice, but it’s better than quite a few of the alternatives. The Phillies don’t have the nose-to-tail roster excellence of the Braves, which helps explain their bumpier rides through the regular season, but they can very much compete at the top — a trademark of Dave Dombrowski teams that seems to keep coming up big in October.

Fresh off that exhilarating 2022 postseason run, a certain amount of optimism has seeped into the walls at Citizens Bank Park. And the biggest thumpers at the top of the Phillies lineup are playing into the theme. Bryce Harper, who hurried back from Tommy John surgery in record time, and Kyle Schwarber have both put up significantly better numbers in the second half. Then there’s Trea Turner, the marquee free-agent addition who is making that optimism look like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The fleet-footed shortstop, who batted .316 and slugged .514 across the three seasons before he hit free agency last winter, struggled badly in his introduction to Philadelphia. Through the end of July, he had a dispiriting .242/.296/.378 batting line, which amounted to a 80 wRC+. But instead of the boos you might expect, based on the city’s reputation, Phillies fans followed the lead of Nick Castellanos and a local radio host and cheered Turner relentlessly in early August.

Well, since Aug. 1, he has been not just more himself but something like the best version of himself. All the power that disappeared in the spring has come springing out of his bat. Turner — who belted 28 homers in 2021 while solidifying his status as an all-around superstar — has whacked 14 homers since Aug. 1 and nine (!) since Aug. 28, suddenly bringing his season total to 24. Also a former batting champ, Turner’s average has climbed all the way to .266.

Whether or not the sonic encouragement is behind Turner’s surge, the Phillies players clearly derive their mentality and confidence from the same stream of thought: Proven players tend to figure it out.

In a conversation with The Athletic about Turner, Schwarber and Castellanos referred to his baseball card, full of All-Star accolades and big numbers.

“It’s a great baseball card,” Schwarber said.

“If it was a Pokémon card,” Castellanos said, “it would be a shiny card. It would be a holographic card.”

From Turner to Harper to Schwarber to Zack Wheeler atop the rotation, the Phillies are indeed shiny. There is a foundation, though. Where last year’s team was figuring it out until the last possible moment, this year’s squad has found a solid, if sometimes frustrating, cruising altitude that predates Turner taking off.

Since June 1, Philadelphia is 53-34, sporting a winning percentage bested only by the Baltimore Orioles and, yes, the Braves and Dodgers. Over that span, the pitching staff has MLB’s best park-adjusted ERA-, buoyed by excellent work from Wheeler and by success stories such as starter Cristopher Sánchez and reliever Jeff Hoffman.

In the lineup, second-year second baseman Bryson Stott and 2022 deadline acquisition Brandon Marsh have leveled up to provide a more well-rounded attack even when one or two of the name brands are slumping. Once they lock into the best-vs.-best format of October, the Phillies’ batting order stacks up admirably. They are set to have eight hitters with OPS+ marks of at least 105 in the lineup, tied with the Dodgers and Rays for second-most, behind only the Braves.

The biggest question (which, admittedly, feels familiar for a Dombrowski-built team) might reside in how manager Rob Thomson deploys his bullpen come crunch time. Of the presumed top four relievers — Craig Kimbrel, Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado and Gregory Soto — only Alvarado has consistently looked worthy of the billing, and he missed time due to injury. Dominguez blew two games against the Miami Marlins this weekend and has generally looked a bit off, while Soto has stumbled to a 4.86 ERA. Kimbrel, at age 35, still seems to have Thomson’s trust, with a 3.45 ERA and 22 saves, despite some anxious moments.

How far the Phillies can progress this postseason might rest on the shoulders of less heralded bullpen types such as Hoffman and Matt Strahm or potential reinforcements coming from the rotation in the form of Sanchez or Michael Lorenzen.

Or, perhaps, this team will again ride into battle with its bold-faced baseball cards leading the way. In a postseason format that often comes down to the luck of the draw, the Phillies will once again start with a stronger hand than their record might indicate.