The numbers are forever seared in the memory of any Phillies fan of a certain age: six-and-a-half games up with 12 to play, with a magic number of seven.
That’s how much of a lock Gene Mauch’s 1964 Phils seemed for the National League pennant and a World Series date vs. the Yankees.
It also how much of an uphill climb their 2018 counterparts face as they head to Atlanta for the climactic final stretch drive; a series that’s been hotly anticipated for weeks.
The Phillies insist regardless of the odds and the math working against them that they won’t be deterred.
“You never know,” said Carlos Santana, one of a handful of current Phils who’s gone through the drama of a pennant race before now.
“Finish strong. Finish healthy. Stay focused,” he said. “I don’t look at the numbers. Every game is very important. We have to stay strong mentally and worry about the present. Play for today.”
This is the right mindset to have because the Phillies have run out of tomorrows. What shaped up not too long ago as a potentially epic showdown—seven of 11 against the Braves, with an imposing four-game trip to Colorado in between—now seems more like the precursor to Atlanta’s coronation as N.L. East champs.
Even Gabe Kapler, who seldom utters a discouraging word, concedes there is zero margin for error.
“We still maintain some degree of control in the division,” Kapler said before the start of the recent Mets’ series. “It’s not complete control, but if we perform really well in the games in Atlanta and Colorado and against Atlanta again, I feel we’re going to be in a really good spot.”
“Is it the highest likelihood? I understand that mathematically it’s not,” the first-year manager added. “But I do feel we have a shot if we play great baseball down the stretch. We can’t play good baseball anymore. We have to play great baseball.”
Considering they’ve been in free-fall since sweeping a four-game series against the Marlins in early August and not even winning a series until this past weekend vs. those same Marlins—that seems highly a pipe dream.
Of course, stranger things have happened, as those ’64 Phils with Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Richie Allen, Johnny Callison & Co. can attest. Seemingly in command up 6 ½ games with 12 to go, they inexplicably lost 10 straight.
Within a week, the second place Reds—who started the carnage with a three-game sweep at Connie Mack Stadium—had caught them. But when Cincinnati faltered as well in the final week, the Cardinals snuck past everybody to clinch the pennant on the final day of the season. Not only that, but they also went on to beat the Yankees in the Series.
So is there a 2018 version of Chico Ruiz wearing red pinstripes? Old-timers will recall that’s the Reds’ utility infielder who stole home in a scoreless game to set the wheels in motion for the start of the Phillies’ unfathomable skid.
Of course, that’s ages before the members of this 2018 crew were even born, But it has to help the narrative believing that there’s still hope—if not for the division, then perhaps the wild card.
“There’s still time, especially for the wild card” claimed outfielder Nick Williams, who admits a young team being in a pennant race for the first time may have accounted for their August-September swoon.
“But we’re just trying to win the day. Take it day by day and there’s a chance we could make a last minute run.”
It’s unlikely, for sure. Then again, so was what happened in ’64.