Phillies' magic number down to 1 as they head to Houston for final series


WASHINGTON -- For all the hand-wringing about the weather and what it might mean to the schedule and their bid to lock down their first postseason berth in a decade, things worked out nicely for the Phillies in the nation's capital this weekend.

They got all four games in, won three of them, and headed to Houston for the final series of the regular season, waterlogged, but in control of their own playoff destiny.

"This is what you play for, to win, get in the postseason and have a chance to win the World Series," said J.T. Realmuto, a standout at the plate and behind it in Sunday's rain-shortened 8-1 win over the Washington Nationals. "The fact that I haven't played (in a postseason) yet is extremely disappointing, so it's fun to be in the race and fun to have a chance. But we're not there yet. We still have to take care of business in Houston."

Sunday's win improved the Phillies to 86-73. Their lead over Milwaukee for the final National League wild-card spot is two games with three to play. The Phils' magic number for entry to the postseason for the first time since 2011 is one. They could clinch a spot as soon as Monday night in Houston, where Aaron Nola will pitch against Lance McCullers Jr.

Milwaukee finishes with three games against Arizona. One Brewers loss would put the Phillies in the postseason, but manager Rob Thomson is hearing none of that.

"Relying on other people isn't really a plan," he said. "We've got to get it done. We're not focused on that. We just need to play well and win some games."

Under heavy, gray clouds on a rainy day, Zack Wheeler was a bright spot for the Phillies on Sunday. He pitched five shutout innings and threw 77 pitches before Thomson got him off the wet mound once the game became official. The game was called after six innings and a one-hour, 28-minute wait.

Wheeler allowed just two hits, walked none and struck out seven. In three starts since coming off the injured list, he's allowed just one run in 15 innings. He has struck out 15 and walked one. 

If the Phillies finalize a spot in the postseason, Wheeler will start Game 1 on Friday.

"His velocity is there," Realmuto said. "He's exactly where we need him to be this time of year. It's definitely a big morale boost for our team knowing we've got him lined up for Game 1 if we take care of business in Houston."

Like Realmuto, Wheeler has never played in a postseason game. He's not looking too far ahead, but he did admit, "That's where it all counts. It's where you want to go and what you battle for the whole season."

The Phillies came to Washington riding a five-game losing skid. They won Friday's opener then suffered an ugly 13-4 loss in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader before bouncing back to win the nightcap, 8-2. Kyle Schwarber homered twice in that game. He continued to swing a productive bat Sunday with a three-run single against Patrick Corbin in the fifth. Earlier, Bryson Stott had a big two-run double. Realmuto homered in the sixth but his biggest contribution came in the third when he gunned down a runner at second for a double play. It was a huge play at the time as the Phillies, with rain beginning to fall, were trying to get through five innings with a lead.

"That was a big moment in the game," Realmuto said. "I felt like it was a momentum stopper for them and then we extended our lead."

In Houston, the Phillies will play three against an elite Astros team that leads the American League with 104 wins. The Phils were supposed to open the season in Houston, but that series was postponed because of labor issues between the players and owners and moved to the end of the season. 

Though the Astros punched their ticket to the postseason nearly two weeks ago, they will not be in complete cruise-control mode against the Phillies. With a first-round bye, Houston will not play its first postseason game until October 11 and manager Dusty Baker intends to keep his lads sharp by playing them against the Phillies.

The Phils will face McCullers Jr. (4-1, 2.38), Justin Verlander (17-4, 1.80) and lefty Framber Valdez (16-6, 2.89) in the series. That's a formidable trio, even if their outings are to be abbreviated. Verlander has the best ERA in the majors and is bidding for the AL Cy Young award.

The Phillies will use Nola, Ranger Suarez and Bailey Falter in the series.

Houston is the site of one of the best moments in Phillies playoff history. It is where they clinched the NL pennant in an epic 1980 Championship Series. The Phils went on to win their first World Series that year.

Things are a lot different now. Six teams make the playoffs in each league, not just two as was the case in 1980, and there are multiple layers of playoffs. The 1980 Phillies won their division while these Phillies will finish third in their division and are bidding to enter the playoffs as a wild-card team.

But none of this will dim the intensity of the series for the men in the Phillies' clubhouse.

They want to make the postseason badly and if the journey must be completed against the best team in the American League ... Well, why not?

"I think it's good for us to go in there and play a good team," Thomson said. "They're going to pitch their best three. It's a challenge and we've got to be up for it because that's what we're going to face next week if we get in. So, go get 'em."

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