Phillies splash past Nationals, 8-1, in rain-shortened game; magic number falls to one

WASHINGTON — As a drizzle fell Sunday morning, Phillies officials gathered inside the visiting clubhouse and met multiple times with representatives from the Washington Nationals and Major League Baseball.

Everyone agreed on the objective: Play ball.

“If we’ve got a window for a couple hours,” interim manager Rob Thomson said shortly before 11:30 am, “then we’d go [play].”

And if they were going to wait for however long it took for that opportunity to arise, the least the Phillies could do was drench the 104-loss Nationals, 8-1, in a rain-shortened, six-inning game and move to the brink of clinching the last National League wild card.

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All they need now is one more victory. If the Phillies win one of the last three regular-season games in Houston against the American League-leading Astros, they will make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and end baseball’s longest active postseason drought.

“We control our own destiny, and that’s really all you can ask for at this time in the season,” said JT Realmuto, who homered and cut down another base stealer. “We’re excited to go in there, play a really good ballclub. It’s going to be a fun series. These games obviously mean a lot to us.”

It should be elementary. Heck, the Phillies could get swept by the Astros and back into the playoffs if the Milwaukee Brewers lose one of their three remaining games at home against Arizona.

But that isn’t the way the Phillies want to see this happen, even though nothing has been easy lately. They endured two five-game losing streaks in the last two weeks that made this wild-card pursuit closer than it should have ever been.

So, the Phillies did what they had to do Sunday. Although the game began in a mist and pressed on through a steady rain that muddied the infield and turned parts of the warning track into a moat, they jumped on Nationals starter Patrick Corbin for one run in the second inning, then three apiece in the fourth and fifth.

And when Zack Wheeler froze Victor Robles with a fastball and waded off the mound after the fifth inning, the game was official, the Phillies led by seven runs, and the champagne bottles were being packed away with the rest of the equipment.

There was another, less overt reason why Sunday was so crucial.

The Phillies’ best hope of advancing in the postseason hinges on Wheeler and Aaron Nola starting the first two games of a best-of-three wild-card series. So they lined up Wheeler to start Sunday in Washington and Nola for Monday night in Houston to put them on track for Game 1 and 2 starts on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

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If the Phillies and Nationals had gotten rained out, the whole thing would’ve been thrown off. Wheeler would’ve had to pitch Monday night in Houston and then not again until Game 2. Nola? Who knows?

No need to worry about that now.

Wheeler always works quickly, but with the rain picking up, he stepped on the gas. He retired three batters on 14 pitches in the first inning, then struck out the side on 15 pitches in the second. He maintained his velocity, scraping 97.6 mph and averaging 95.2.

In all, Wheeler gave up two hits and struck out seven in five scoreless, walk-free innings. He threw 77 pitches, which sets him up to be close to 90 for his next start. If he makes a next start, it will be 11 years to the date of the Phillies’ last playoff game.

“That’s where it all counts, right?” Wheeler said. “That’s where you want to get to and what you battle for the entire season to get to that point.”

Said Realmuto: “It was huge for us getting that game in today and getting him lined up for Game 1. Now, we’re not there yet. We have to go take care of business in Houston. But the cards are lining up and looking good for us.”

Pun intended? The Phillies could face the Cardinals in the wild-card opener Friday night in St. Louis.

All they need is one more win.

“This is what you play for,” Realmuto said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play our type of baseball and take care of business.”

The bottom three hitters in the order did the most damage against Corbin, who became the majors’ first 19-game loser since Chris Archer and James Shields in 2016.

Jean Segura, Matt Vierling, and Bryson Stott combined to go 6-for-8 with five runs and three RBIs. Stott came up with a big two-run double to stretch the lead to 3-0 in the third inning.

For Vierling, it marked a continuation from Saturday night when he stepped in for right fielder Nick Castellanos and tripled and homered in an 8-2 victory in the nightcap of a doubleheader that may have saved the season.

If Vierling continues to swing a hot bat, it’s possible he could get into the lineup in a wild-card series, especially against the Cardinals. As a right-handed hitter, Vierling, a St. Louis native, could get time in center field against Cardinals lefties Jordan Montgomery and José Quintana.

“He’s really had good at-bats lately,” Thomson said. “He’s squaring up balls. He’s played well.”

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Realmuto made what Thomson labeled the “play of the game” by cutting down Robles at second base after Wheeler struck out Riley Adams. Instead of having two on and one out, the Nationals had a runner on third and two out.

The Nationals challenged the play but did not get the call overturned.

“I thought I had him. Then when I watched the replay, it was really close,” said Realmuto, who has thrown out 27 of 65 attempted base stealers. “I was pretty sure that it was too close to overturn. I think either way that would’ve gotten called, it probably would’ve stood.”

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