Doggone if it doesn’t seem like just a week ago that the Phillies had a well-upholstered lead in the National League wild card standings and everybody was talking about what an advantage it was going to be to have all home games in the first round of the postseason.
Turns out, it was just a week ago.
After beating the Angels on the next-to-last day of August, the Phillies held a four-game lead over the Cubs for the sole position among non-division winners. And while that might not be as commanding as, just to pick some random numbers, being 6 ½ up with 12 to play, it was a pretty comfortable cushion. Especially the way they were pounding the ball game after game.
But by the time the first pitch at Petco Park was thrown Wednesday afternoon, the Cubs were well on their way to demolishing the Giants to complete a sweep that, combined with a Phillies loss, would have pulled Chicago to within a half game.
It was a timely reminder – not that anyone really needs one – of how quickly things can change in baseball. The Phillies came in having lost four of their last six. And while they had, for the most part, continued to punish opposing pitchers, their own starters in the previous four games (Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker, Michael Lorenzen) had combined for an 8.69 earned run average. Yikes.
So what the Phillies really needed against the Padres on getaway day was a strong start from Zack Wheeler and a win. And not necessarily in that order.
They got both.
Wheeler restored order to the rotation with six dominant innings. He retired the first 11 batters he faced before walked San Diego leftfielder Juan Soto with two outs in the fourth. Designated hitter Manny Machado followed with a bloop that fell into no man’s land between second baseman Bryson Stott and rightfielder Nick Castellanos.
It was the only hit the Padres got off Wheeler as he was striking out seven and walking two in his six innings.
Meanwhile, the lineup went 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position but still did enough damage to give the Phillies a 5-1 win that allowed them to maintain a game-and-a-half lead over the Cubs.
In his previous two starts Wheeler become just the third pitcher in modern franchise history (since 1900) to have back-to-back games of at least seven innings with double digit strikeouts and zero walks. Cole Hamels and Curt Schilling also did it.
“He’s throwing the ball great,” manager Rob Thomson told reporters, agreeing with the observation that this is what ace pitchers do: Come up back on the last game of a road trip when things had been going a little sideways.
“He looks like he’s maintaining his velocity. He looks strong coming down the stretch.”
Kyle Schwarber led off the first with a home run off the batter’s eye in center field.
This is not a recording.
For all the discussion about the wisdom of having a hitter with a batting average under .200 in the top spot of the order, it was the fourth time in his last 10 games that Schwarber has gotten his team going with a first-inning bomb. It was also his 10th leadoff homer of the year, passing Jimmy Rollins for the franchise single season record.
Overall, it was his 11th home run in his last 18 games, giving him 41 for the season.
“It’s that time of year when you need to get series wins,” Schwarber said on the NBC Sports Philadelphia postgame interview on the field. “Keep pushing to the very end. We did a really good job of going out there and taking care of business. Now we’ve just got to keep it going.
“It’s always good to start the game with a run on the board.”
The Phillies extended their lead with a two out, two-run double in the fourth. That ended an 0-for-20 streak for Harper.
“It was huge at that point of the game to extend the lead from one to three," said Schwarber, who had walked and scored from first on the play. “Great at bat by him.”
Harper told reporters he didn’t consider taking a day off to reset himself.
“That’s why you play a full season,” he said. “You’re going to go through spurts. You have to stay in the lineup no matter what you’re doing. It’s not about me. It’s about everybody in here.
“I don’t think it’s anything about my swing. It’s about chasing pitches. You just can’t do that. I just have to stay within myself.”
The Phillies continued to lean on the long ball when J.T. Realmuto homered in the third. They then added on an insurance run on a single by Brandon Marsh, a walk to Edmundo Sosa and an RBI single by Jake Cave.
The Phillies finished 3-3 on the road trip that began in Milwaukee.
The Phillies are off Thursday, then open a weekend series against Miami at Citizens Bank Park.
It will be LHP Cristopher Sanchez (2-3, 3.48) starting for the Phillies Friday at 7:05 p.m., RHP Aaron Nola (12-9, 4.55) Saturday at 6:05 p.m. and LHP Ranger Suarez (2-6, 3.91) Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
The Marlins have to adjust their lineup after placing ace righthander Sandy Alcantara on the injured list Wednesday with a forearm strain.