Phillies' Series in Arizona Crucial in More Ways Than One

If the Phillies win tonight and the Cubs lose, the Phils will be tied for the best record in the National League.

On Aug. 7.

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Yes, seriously.

What an improbable journey to relevance it has been for the 2018 Phillies, who opened the season with an over-under win total of 75.5. For the over to hit, the Phillies need to go just 13-38 the rest of the way.

They've arrived a year ahead of time. Few expected the Phillies to be in this position the first week of August, leading the NL East. As a result, they've had to adjust on the fly, acquiring players like Asdrubal Cabrera and Wilson Ramos, who will take playing time away from Scott Kingery and Jorge Alfaro. When you're building toward contention, you play the young guys and let them develop. When you're actually in contention, you have to play who gives you the best chance to win that day.

Phils and D-backs

After a four-game sweep of the lowly Marlins, the Phillies tonight begin a six-game road trip through Arizona and San Diego. The first three games will be a challenge.

At 63-48, the Phillies are two games better than the Diamondbacks, who are in an extremely tight race in the NL West. The D-backs are tied with the Dodgers for the division lead, two games ahead of the Rockies and five better than the Giants.

The Dodgers have a significantly deeper and more talented roster than their division rivals and Fangraphs gives them a 76 percent chance to win the West.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have a 54 percent chance to win the NL East and a 71 percent chance to make the postseason, per Fangraphs' intricate playoff formula. 

The wild-card race

If the Phillies are unable to hang onto the division lead, they're still heavily involved in the wild-card race, which makes this series in Arizona even more important. 

With the widespread expectation that the Dodgers win the division, the Phillies could be battling with the D-backs for one of the two wild-card spots. If the season ended today, the Brewers would host the Braves in the one-game playoff. The D-backs are a half-game off the pace.

Which pitching staff is better?

I wrote on Sunday that the Phillies, because of their July acquisitions and the quick improvements of key young players, suddenly have one of the NL's deepest rosters. It's not an outlandish claim. Aside from the Dodgers and Cubs, you could make the case the Phils are the most complete team - rotation, bullpen, offense - of the other 13.

The Diamondbacks would be the closest comparison. Their 1-2 starting pitching punch of Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin rivals the Aaron Nola-Jake Arrieta duo. Greinke is having a terrific season - 2.96 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NL. Corbin, a lefty, has a 3.31 ERA with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Both were All-Stars. The Phillies face Greinke on Tuesday night and Corbin Wednesday afternoon.

Arizona's bullpen has been the best in the National League with a 3.12 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. The closer, Brad Boxberger, does not throw hard but can pinpoint his fastball on the outside corner and has a great changeup. Setup man Archie Bradley has taken steps back, but the D-backs have gotten a ton out of lefty Andrew Chafin (1.83 ERA) and 34-year-old rookie Yoshihisa Hirano (2.25 ERA). Adding veterans Jake Diekman and Brad Ziegler at the trade deadline didn't hurt, either.

Talent-wise, the bullpens are close. In terms of what's actually happened this season, though, Arizona has the bullpen advantage. The rotations are closer, but the Phillies have a slight edge because their 3-4-5 of Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Nick Pivetta is better. Zack Godley, who pitches tonight, has a 4.46 ERA and extremely high 1.47 WHIP. Lefty Robbie Ray hasn't yet rounded into form after missing much of the season with an oblique strain.

The lineups

Offensively, the Phillies' lineup is deeper right than now the D-backs'. Rhys Hoskins, who is often compared to Paul Goldschmidt, has nearly identical 2018 numbers. 

A.J. Pollock (.285/.346/.553, 15 HR, 44 RBI) is the second-most dangerous hitter in Arizona's order. David Peralta (.293/.351/.497) excels against right-handed pitching.

But that's pretty much it in terms of big offensive threats. The Phillies have the offensive advantage at shortstop, third base, catcher and at least one outfield corner. 

The D-backs lengthened their lineup ahead of the deadline by trading for Eduardo Escobar, but Escobar has hit just .230/.313/.360 since June 20.

Chase Field has changed

The Phillies lost three of four last June in Phoenix but swept the road series the year before. 

In the Goldschmidt era, the Phillies are 10-12 in Arizona. The Phils are 3-2-1 in their last six series there.

For what it's worth, Chase Field this season has not been as hitter- or homer-friendly as usual. The D-backs installed a humidor at their home park, a la Coors Field, to allow their pitchers a better grip on the baseball. 

Humidors are known to suppress offense and that's been the case. Chase Field ranks 10th in runs and 18th in homers this season. In 2017, it was third in runs and fourth in homers.

One other huge series to keep an eye on this week: Braves-Nationals. Atlanta is in D.C. for four games, beginning with a doubleheader Tuesday.

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