Philadelphia Phillies: Don’t let this golden opportunity slip away

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

It’s been far from an ideal 2021 season for the Philadelphia Phillies up to this point. But here they are, in the proverbial dog days of August, locked in a three-team battle for the National League East title. Realistically, this is close to the best-case scenario that we could have asked for the Phillies to be in.

It won’t be good enough, however, if the Phils give it the old college try and hang around long enough to give us some real excitement, only to fall just short in the season’s final days. No, the situation before us has swung the door wide open for the Phillies to charge through into October. Strong individual seasons by several of their players, as well as key injuries to division rivals, have tipped this into must-win territory for the Phils because they couldn’t possibly have a better chance to claim a division crown over the next couple of seasons than they do right now in 2021.

First, let’s take the MVP-caliber season being had by Bryce Harper and the Cy Young-level 2021 that we’ve seen so far from Zack Wheeler. At ages 28 and 31, respectively, we might be seeing the absolute best that they have to offer from this point forward. It would be a crying shame to see their award-worthy campaigns ultimately contribute to nothing more than the Phillies’ tenth straight season without a playoff appearance. Similarly, 30-year old J.T. Realmuto is near his peak right now, with diminishing returns expected in the later years of the massive contract that he signed last offseason.

As a whole, this Philadelphia Phillies team is at an age and an overall payroll level where it should be expected to win. And with a lack of young talent in the system, things aren’t going to get any easier in the near future. Reinforcing this notion is the fact that the Braves and Mets are dealing with injury issues that should theoretically make them easier to beat out for first place this season. When teams lose talented players like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Jacob deGrom, their opponents have to seize that opportunity to kick them while they’re down. Injuries are a part of the game, and no asterisks will be added to a Phillies division championship banner if they can outlast their hobbled rivals.

The Philadelphia Phillies have nobody but themselves to blame if they fail to bring home the NL East title this season.

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Even beyond the injuries to their best players, the Braves and Mets have dealt with other issues this season. Atlanta never saw a Mike Soroka return materialize, and they’ve also endured the Marcell Ozuna situation.

Meanwhile, the Mets have seen huge addition Francisco Lindor struggle mightily before landing on the Injured List, faced other pitching staff health concerns, and have had a litany of messy off-the-field problems. Even putting aside the fact that they play in New York, they are an utterly unlikable franchise.

This doesn’t mean that they can’t be a threat in the division, but come on. They don’t have the look or feel of a team that should be in the playoffs.

As for the rest of the division, the Marlins are bad as they usually are, yet their stable of young arms figures to have them in contention in the near future. And the Nationals are in full rebuild mode after trading most of their functional major leaguers. Their bullpen is also even worse than the Phillies’ is, something that you can’t rely on happening again next year.

Add this all up, and the Philadelphia Phillies look like the last team standing as the least blemished of the group.

It’s been far from a perfect season. Alec Bohm has failed to build on his strong rookie campaign. The team defense has been atrocious with an unacceptable frequency. The Phillies also screwed up top pitching prospect Spencer Howard so badly that he was genuinely relieved to be traded to Texas. And the list goes on. Still, the division remains right there for the taking as this team attempts to get back to the postseason for the first time in a decade.

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The Philadelphia Phillies have had their share of missed opportunities over the last several years, but this one will loom over all the rest if they don’t claim the NL East title. The division will never be more winnable than it is this season. Failure to take care of business should push this franchise into legitimate crisis mode. Let’s not find out what that might look like.