The “what might have been” series starts tonight, with a pair of 2021 National League All-Stars taking the mound, Zack Wheeler for the Phillies and Taijuan Walker for the Mets.
The goal over the next three games? Each team wants to avoid adding to its long list of “How the hell did we lose that game?” debacles in 2021 and claim the “Hey, maybe we could still salvage something!” award. With only about two-and-a-half weeks left in the regular season, though, it’s probably more of a battle for the bragging rights of being able to say, “At least those guys were eliminated before we were.”
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The Phillies are 2 1/2 back of the second wild card, with the Reds between them and the ticket to October, and three games back in the NL East behind the Braves. The Mets are five and 5 1/2 back, respectively. Those might not seem like insurmountable deficits, given a little help with some losses by the teams ahead of them. After all, the Cardinals just made up 3 1/2 games in the wild card standings — gaining on both the Reds and Padres — in an eight-game stretch. The Blue Jays just made up 4 1/2 games in the AL wild card standings in 15 September contests.
Here’s the piece of information that probably is relevant, though: The Mets are three games under .500 for the season — 11 under .500 in the second half — and the Phillies are a mere two games over for the year, but just 6-8 in September. Quite honestly, it’s a miracle they’re even still in the October conversation. In 2015, for example, the Diamondbacks finished four games back of .500 (one worse than the Mets now) and they finished 13 games out in the division and 18 games out of a wild card spot.
But with all the mediocrity in the NL — after the excellent Giants, Brewers and Dodgers, of course — opportunity still exists. There just isn’t much evidence to support the hope for fans of the Mets or Phillies that their favorite squad has a strong push to the finish left in the tank. What there is plenty of on both sides, though, is regret.
For both squads, the season is full of gut-punch losses and inexplicable defeats. We aren’t going to compile a comprehensive list — who needs all that negativity? — but we’ll give a little snapshot, to give you an idea if you haven’t been paying close attention.
The Mets started in a very Mets way. Ace Jacob deGrom made five starts in April, allowing just two earned runs and compiling a 0.51 ERA, but the Mets somehow lost three — THREE!!! — of those five games. In the season opener, the club had a 2-0 lead when deGrom exited, but wound up losing 5-3. In the other two, they were shut out.
On July 7, Tylor Megill pitched six shutout innings in Pittsburgh, and the Mets had a 6-0 lead heading into the eighth. The Pirates scored five in the eighth and won the game on a walk-off grand slam in the ninth. Oh, and this most recent series, at home against the Cardinals — one of the teams they’re chasing in the wild card race — will stick in their craw. The Mets were coming off an emotional series win against the Yankees — punctuated by Francisco Lindor’s three-homer game — when they were swept by St. Louis, outscored 25-10 in the three games.
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You pretty much have to start with the MLB-worst 32 blown saves, right? Even if you take it down to the MLB average of 22 blown saves, those 10 shoulda-been-wins push them way ahead of Atlanta in the NL East race. The Braves, by the way, have 23 blown saves on the season.
There are two second-half series in particular that Phillies fans are still shaking their heads about. The first one was in Arizona, Aug. 17-19, against a Diamondbacks team that has the worst record — and the worst ERA — in the NL. The Phillies, though, scored just six runs, total, and were swept. And a recent series at home against the Rockies was just as brutal. Aside from that four-game set, the Rockies are just 20-50 on the road this season, but they managed to win three of the four games in Philadelphia. The first one was especially, tough; the Phillies had a 2-1 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth inning and closer Ian Kennedy was ahead of Ryan McMahon, 0-2.
McMahon, though, blasted a home run to put the Rockies ahead 3-2, and Sam Hilliard followed with a solo home run to give Colorado a two-run lead in a game they’d win 4-3.
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So, yeah, lots of regret in New York and Philadelphia.
For the Mets, they pretty much have to sweep the Phillies to have any outside hope of getting to October. The Phillies, with their best starters lined up for this series and Bryce Harper making an MVP charge, should still at least be in the picture as long as they’re not swept. Let’s see what happens.