The Phillies are spending their last off day of the season – a calm before a crucial three-day storm, you could say – right back where this crazy, unforeseen, unprecedented 2020 season began seven months ago.
After Thursday night’s season-saving, 12-3, win over the Washington Nationals, the Phillies jetted to Tampa and spent the night in Pinellas County, Florida, just a few miles from where they first assembled in February, back when COVID-19 was just a secondary item on the nightly news.
We know what happened a month later. The virus shut down the country and put a four-month pause in professional sports. Major League Baseball cobbled together a 60-game season, starting on July 23, and on Friday night, the Phillies will begin what basically amounts to a do-or-die, three-game, final weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays, the same team they were playing back on March 12 in Port Charlotte when the third base umpire turned to Phil Gosselin and said, “We’re done after this.”
The Phillies woke up Thursday morning off the NL playoff grid, a game back in the wild-card race and a half-game back in the NL East race. They pretty much need a weekend sweep, and some outside help, to make the eight-team postseason field.
The 37-win Rays, champs of the AL East, are the second-best team in baseball behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. Charlie Morton will start the first game of the series for the Rays. They have not announced their starters for Saturday and Sunday, but could rely on the bullpen, one of the best in the majors, as they set their pins for the postseason in those final two games.
Vince Velasquez will start Friday night’s game for the Phillies. The talented but inconsistent right-hander is in his fifth season with the Phillies. He was the centerpiece in GM Matt Klentak’s first big trade after taking over in October 2015. Klentak has been immensely patient with Velasquez. It’s time for the pitcher to return the favor because Klentak’s job might be riding on this weekend’s results and the Phils’ getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola will start Saturday and Sunday for the Phillies. Zach Eflin, coming off two gems, is set for the playoff opener – if the Phillies get there. If the Phils get in a pinch Sunday, he could be used out of the bullpen that day.
The Phils have been without Rhys Hoskins since he strained a ligament in his left elbow two weeks ago. He is unlikely to be ready to play in this final series. The Phillies hope he’s a possibility for the postseason, but off-season surgery remains a possibility.
The Phillies' charter flight to Tampa on Thursday night was a little more crowded than usual. The Phils closed down their auxiliary training site in Lehigh Valley and are now traveling with their entire 40-man player pool. Only players in the pool are eligible to play in the postseason. Twenty-eight players will be active.
Players who are not on the active roster will work out before games.
The Phillies said they did not add first baseman Greg Bird to the 60-man pool because he tested positive for COVID-19 after his signing last week. Veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy was included in the pool. He was signed as insurance the same day as Bird. J.T. Realmuto is back in the lineup after missing 11 games with a hip injury and Andrew Knapp has flourished in a backup role, so the Phillies are hoping they won't need more catching.
All teams are now in a bubble, home and away, for whatever remains of their seasons. For the Phillies, that’s not really a challenge because the remainder of their games, regular season and playoffs, if they get there, will be on the road.
Here’s a look at the Phillies’ 60-man player pool:
Right-handers: Jake Arrieta, Connor Brogdon, Zach Eflin, David Hale, Heath Hembree, Spencer Howard, Tommy Hunter, Adonis Medina, Héctor Neris, Aaron Nola, Blake Parker, David Phelps, Ramón Rosso, Vince Velasquez, Zack Wheeler and Brandon Workman.
Left-handers: José Álvarez, Garrett Cleavinger, Adam Morgan, JoJo Romero and Ranger Suárez.
Andrew Knapp, Jonathan Lucroy, Rafael Marchan and J.T. Realmuto.
Jay Bruce, Bryce Harper, Adam Haseley, Mikie Mahtook, Andrew McCutchen, Mickey Moniak and Roman Quinn.