Major challenge this week for a Phillies team going in the wrong direction


After dropping four straight on the road, the Phillies face a daunting task back home this week: six games against teams just as hungry for wins as they are.

The Phils host the Blue Jays Tuesday and Wednesday, then the Braves Thursday through Sunday. Toronto and Atlanta each enter the week in the top wild-card spot in their respective leagues. Both would have home-field advantage in all three games of a first-round Best of Three playoff matchup against the 5-seed if the season ended today. The Braves would host the Padres and the Blue Jays would host the Rays.

The Blue Jays are playing as well as they have all season, going 13-5 in September behind a hot offense. The biggest difference this month has been Bo Bichette's tear. The aggressive-swinging shortstop has hit .440 in 18 games with nine doubles, a triple, seven homers and 23 RBI. His run has been so powerful that he's raised his OPS from .725 to .803, even this late in the season.

The top-third of Toronto's order is loaded with George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bichette. All-Star catcher Alejandro Kirk, hitting .295 with pop, is expected to return Tuesday after missing five days with a hip injury.

It will be a challenge for Kyle Gibson, who does have good numbers against most of Toronto's top bats. Springer is 1 for 13, Bichette is 0 for 3, Matt Chapman is 0 for 12 and Teoscar Hernandez is 0 for 7.

The Phillies will see right-handers Ross Stripling and Kevin Gausman in the series. Stripling has been a major factor for the Blue Jays down the stretch, making six straight quality starts with a 2.45 ERA and .167 opponents' batting average since returning from a brief IL stint in mid-August. 

Gausman is one of the toughest customers in the AL, though he's allowed five runs in back-to-back outings to the Rangers and Rays. On any given night, he can deliver seven scoreless innings with 10 K's. When he's had trouble this season, a primary reason has been predictability. He has one of the best splitters in the game and loves to attack hitters with splitters that drop out of the zone and fastballs up. At times, that makes him a bit easier to track with hitters' knowledge that anything up is likely to be a heater and anything down is likely to be a split. He's at his best when he incorporates some fastballs at the knees, too.

After finishing with the Blue Jays, the Phillies have four more with the Braves. The Phils are 6-9 in the season series. It looks like they'll draw every Braves starting pitcher except Max Fried, which of course means another date with Spencer Strider, who has a 1.27 ERA and .097 opponents' batting average with 34 strikeouts in 21⅓ innings against them.

The Braves have three with the Nationals leading into that series. The drastic gap in talent between those teams could allow the Braves to preserve the key members of their bullpen for the Phillies.

It will be the Phils' last homestand of 2022. They finish with a 10-game road trip against the Cubs, Nationals and Astros.

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