Tonight is a must-win game for the Philadelphia Phillies.
But not because a loss will directly impact their standing in the MLB postseason chase. I refuse to accept the possibility that the Phils will miss out on the playoffs, and the 99.4% chance ESPN.com gives them to play into October reaffirms that belief.
It is because their performance of late does not befit a playoff team, especially compared to the head of steam the 2007 and 2008 Phillies built up in September.
In 2007, they ran into Rocktober and it didn't matter. But last year, a little older, a little wiser, the Phillies took it to a Milwaukee Brewers team that seemed as good, if not better, than them on paper. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a Phillies fan who didn't think their great regular-season play in the fall carried over into that NLDS.
But right now, almost everyone looks tired, worn-out, overused, as the 162-game season winds down. Cole Hamels can't make the big pitches late, when it counts. Cliff Lee can't make the big pitches at all. The back of the bullpen is a disaster, and the offense has sometimes looked even worse. Chase Utley's batting .222 in September; Jayson Werth's batting .239.
But the pieces are all there for another World Series run, even in the 'pen. As long as they can squeak out the few necessary wins this week, J.C. Romero, Chan Ho Park and Brett Myers should all be ready for the postseason roster. It remains to be seen how effective they'll be, but with Tyler Walker reverting to the norm and Clay Condrey not looking anywhere close to 100%, they'll be the best non-Madson options we have. And if they do come back like we're hoping and praying for, well-rested and healthy, they're among the best options in the league.
That being said, it's impossible to have a World Series-level of confidence right now. Most people would tell you the St. Louis Cardinals are the favorites in the National League, and they're probably right. If we can't hit Yorman Bazardo, how are we going to hit Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright? If we can't get Miguel Tejada out, how can we take care of Albert Pujols?
We're used to seeing the relatively untested New York Mets come up short when it counts, but watching the defending champion Phillies threaten to do the same is very disconcerting. Maybe they don't have any gas left in the tank, or maybe the Atlanta Braves nipping at their heels is what they need to get off the shnide; tonight will be a good opportunity to find out. J.A. Happ and his 2.79 ERA take on Wilton Lopez and his 8.44 ERA, as much a mismatch as you can hope for in late September.
Seven in 17 already happened; four in six won't. I know it won't...I think it won't...I hope it won't. Will it? Only Charlie Manuel and company know for sure.