October 4, 2023

Down to the wire—Series Preview: Phillies at Astros, October 3 – 5


Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When the late Vin Scully signed off SportsNetLA for the final time, the sportscasting icon delivered one of the most heartfelt messages you’ll hear. And somehow—as you knew he would—whether it was intentional or not, you can connect a part of his message to baseball today and forever. “You and I have been friends for a long time, but I know, in my heart, I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me,” Scully said when addressing the fans in his final minutes on air.

With the Phillies clinging onto the third and final National League Wild Card spot, they are traveling to Houston to face the 104-win Astros to close their regular season. In this case, the Phillies and Astros might not be longtime “friends” like Scully suggested, but it comes without a doubt that at this very moment, the Phillies need the Astros much more than the Astros need our Philadelphia Phillies.

A Yankees loss on September 30 locked the Astros as the number one seed in the American League, and Houston had a playoff berth clinched for nearly three weeks.

So with the Phillies’ season coming down to the wire, how ’bout the ‘Stros give the Phils a lick of help, eh? Well, let’s face it—that’s not going to happen. The Astros have a deep lineup with a combination of veterans and young guns, and they boast a starting rotation that features multiple former all-stars, one being Justin Verlander—the sure-fire Cy Young award winner in the American League.

A glance at the standings

There are many ways to describe the race for the last NL Wild Card spot, but none of them seem to be positive. Younger baseball fans have been referring to it as the battle of “mid,” a term used by teenagers to describe something incredibly average. And unfortunately, that has been the case over the past two weeks. The Phillies have lost 11 of their last 17 games, and the Brewers failed to take advantage of the Phillies’ struggles, going 8-9 in that same 17-game span.

Now, the Phillies lead the Crew by two full games. Their magic number is down to one, meaning that the Phillies are a win (or a Brewers loss) away from clinching a playoff spot since 2011.

The Brewers end their season against the Diamondbacks, and they are currently slated to face Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly—two of the better pitchers in the National League—to end the three-game series.

Live, up-to-date Wild Card standings can be found here.

Can Harper finish stronger than he did in 2021?

Despite Bryce Harper bringing home the National League Most Valuable Player honor, 2021 was a brutal season for Phillies baseball. They went from leading the NL East in August to barely finishing the season over .500 a few weeks later. In the Phillies’ final series of the season against the then-division-leading Braves, the Phillies fell short, and Harper went 0 for 11 in the series.

It was disappointing on multiple levels, and Phillies fans still bring it up to this day when one feels the need to slander Harper.

But now, one year later, would be an excellent time for the two-time MVP to show he’s built for late-season baseball.

Harper had just two hits in 15 at-bats this weekend, but he had a clutch RBI single up the middle to extend the Phillies’ lead in the series finale in Washington. While the numbers aren’t promising, he’s had more comfortable at-bats while producing harder-hit outs in the air. Harper did not strike out at all during the four-game set in Washington, a reassuring sign after struggling to put the ball in play following his return from the injured list.

Going against three elite pitchers in Houston, Harper will not have an easy task to hopefully carry the Phillies’ offense as the three-hole hitter, but he’s proven he can compete with the best in the game. And bearing a Brewers and Astros sweep, we should see Harper make his first playoff appearance in pinstripes at the end of the week.

Time for a tune-up

The Phillies are planning to send Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez to the mound for games one and two of the Astros series, respectively, and they have more to think about than just clinching a spot in the postseason.

While an appearance in the playoffs would be progress from last season, you should expect more out of a team with one of the highest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Considering it would take a miracle for the Brewers to overtake the Phillies in the Wild Card, it’s important that the entire team begins to ready themselves for the postseason.

Nola and Suarez, neither of whom have pitched in the playoffs before, have both shown signs of fatigue at one point in the season. And to ensure they’re both ready to go, Rob Thomson will be forced to balance the importance of preparedness, health, and winning if he wants to guide the Phillies deep into the playoffs. That said, he’ll need to decide whether the Phillies need to treat these games like win-or-go-home games until the magic number ticks down to zero, or if he needs to save pitching and limit the pitch counts of Nola and Suarez.

“These games obviously mean a lot to [the team]. So we’re just going to go out there, have fun, and make the most of it,” Phillies’ catcher J.T. Realmuto said after the game on Sunday.

But he also pointed out that they are playing to “win and to get to the postseason and win a World Series,” indicating the Phillies shouldn’t just be worried about the now.

Rob Thomson has not indicated for certain whether any of the Phillies’ pitchers will be on a pitch count limit. But if the Phillies clinch on Monday, Ranger Suarez’s outing the following day could be shortened, as he is lined up to pitch game three of a potential Wild-Card series in St. Louis.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: Aaron Nola (RHP, 10-13, 3.36 ERA) vs. Lance McCullers, Jr. (RHP, 4-1, 2.38 ERA)

Game 2: Ranger Suarez (LHP, 10-6, 3.37 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (RHP, 17-4, 1.8 ERA)

Game 3: Bailey Falter (LHP, 6-4, 3.9 ERA) vs. Framber Valdez (LHP, 16-6, 2.89 ERA)

The numbers

  • Run Differential:
  • Phillies: 63
  • Astros: 209
  • Runs Scored Per Game:
  • Phillies: 4.65
  • Astros: 4.56
  • Runs Allowed Per Game:
  • Phillies: 4.25
  • Astros: 3.24

Game times and broadcasts

  • Monday, October 3, at 8:10pm ET on NBC Sports Philadelphia, WTTM 1680, 94.1 WIP
  • Tuesday, October 4, at 8:10pm ET on NBC Sports Philadelphia, WTTM 1680, 94.1 WIP
  • Wednesday, October 5, at 4:10pm ET on NBC Sports Philadelphia, WTTM 1680, 94.1 WIP

Game coverage will be provided on Philly Sports Reports’ Twitter page.

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