Sam Donnellon: Miracle not in the cards for these Phils

Nick Punto (right) and Skip Schumaker saw Cards go from afterthoughts to World Series champs.
Nick Punto (right) and Skip Schumaker saw Cards go from afterthoughts to World Series champs. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: August 29, 2012

AMID THE clubhouse celebration marking the Cardinals' improbable entrance into the 2011 postseason, St. Louis utility man Nick Punto paused to issue this observation:

"When you're 10 1/2 games out, that's a hole you can't climb out of," he said.

"Unless you get a lot of help."

The Cardinals got a lot of help last September. When a few Cardinals - including Punto - spoke bravely and conciliatorily to the well-attended Knights of the Cauliflower Ear dinner at the Missouri Athletic Club this time last season, it was because they had fallen hopelessly behind the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. The Braves, who had jumped to the NL East lead during the first half of the season, seemed in cruise control, capable of beating all teams not named the Phillies.

The Phillies pounded them over the second half of last season. Even in those final games of the season, when the Braves needed to win just once and the Phillies needed to, well, rest up, Atlanta was incapable of beating its longtime nemesis. The gnawing thing is, had the Phillies honored the game like that during a four-game set against the Cardinals in mid-September, those final games might have been meaningless.

And we might be writing something completely different today.

Instead we are writing about the realistic chances of the Braves and Cardinals, and of a Phillies team that has been upgraded over the last few games from dead to desperate. It has been postulated that the Phillies would need 88 victories to even have a shot at the second wild card - i.e., a 27-7 record the rest of the way.

Coolstandings.com gives the Phillies a one-in-1,000 chance of doing it. For one thing, they would have to hop over four teams, none of which has a losing record.

This makes their plight different than that of last year's Cardinals, or even the Tampa Bay Rays, who took advantage of Boston's epic late-season collapse to push into the postseason. According to Coolstandings, only one team since divisions and playoffs were instituted has overcome odds close to theirs at this point of the season.

After the games of Aug. 27, the record of the 1973 Mets stood at 59-70. Of the 12 teams in the National League at the time, they owned the 11th-best record. They were in last place in the National League East, but were only 6 1/2 games behind first-place St. Louis. New York went 23-9 from that point on, and clinched the division on a rainy last day of the season in Chicago, Tug McGraw recording a three-inning save.

Like this Phillies pipe dream, they needed to hop over an entire division. They needed the front-runners to play badly. The Cardinals were 15-18 the rest of the way, the Pirates played .500, the Cubs were 14-18. The 1973 Phillies won just 11 of their last 32.

The big difference, of course, is that the 1973 Mets hunted down a division of losers. They were the only team to finish with a winning record.

These Phillies have to finish better than five of six teams that have played, to this point, .500 baseball or better. That's a lot of folding, and since some games involve these teams playing each other, it's hard to think there's enough stink to go around.

But as Lloyd told Mary in "Dumb and Dumber" when she downgraded his chances from one-in-100 to one-in-a-million: "So you're telling me there's a chance!"

Just last year, the Rays were among seven American League teams seeking three playoff spots. While their record was a much healthier 72-59, they were behind three teams for the only wild-card spot at this point of the season. The Red Sox were 31 games over .500 after the games of Aug. 27, two games ahead of New York for first place. Boston went 8-21 after this date, worse even than the Braves' 10-19 mark.

Forgotten in these collapses was the comparatively minor one registered by the Angels, who finished the season 14-16 from this date. Lost also is how many bad teams finished strong. Kansas City was 17-12, last-place Baltimore was 17-16. Seven games under .500 at this point, the Dodgers won 20 of their last 30. Washington was 18-12. Among them, only Kansas City is not a playoff contender this season.

Both the Nationals and Dodgers have put together consistent and good seasons and are poised to secure playoff berths.

They also seem very well-positioned for the future.

And that's your real hope. That what you're seeing now in this Phillies' miniresurgence is the foundation of a new beginning.

Not the remnant of a grand old past.


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon. For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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