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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — At the All-Star break, it looked like the final regular season series between the Phillies and Braves could shape up to be very important. Philadelphia had the best record in baseball, but it was only good enough for a 3-½ game lead over streaking Atlanta in the NL East.
Fast forward to early September.
The Phillies put the Braves in the rearview mirror with a sweep of Atlanta — unofficially securing their fifth consecutive division crown while forcing Fredi Gonzalez’s squad to settle for its second straight wild card playoff spot. Right?
Not so fast.
Yes, the Phillies popped the corks on the champagne bottles, but the Braves haven’t been the same since that sweep. Heading into their final series against Philadelphia, Atlanta has dropped 10 of 17, including another sweep at the hands of the Cardinals. They’ve watched their once very comfortable lead in the National League wild card race dwindle to one game over surging Saint Louis.
And the Phils didn’t do the Braves any favors by since losing three of four at home to the Cards.
Suddenly these final three games mean something again — but for an entirely different reason.
The Braves obviously need to win to avoid an epic collapse — but for the Phillies — this series will likely determine their opponent in the NLDS.
A few weeks ago, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion — the Phillies would play either the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Milwaukee Brewers.
That was then, this is now.
If Saint Louis slips past Atlanta and claims the wild card, the Phillies would then open the postseason against Albert Pujols and the Cardinals.
Playing the Braves, the Phillies essentially control their own fate — so manager Charlie Manuel has a decision to make. Does he play his regulars and try to knock off Atlanta? Or does he rest them and try to avoid injury?
After a week of roster roulette that saw Philadelphia suffer its longest losing streak in 11 years, Manuel played all of his starters on Sunday, and the dormant offense came to life in a 9-4 rout of the New York Mets. Does he continue to roll with them in an attempt to keep the bats going, or does he trust that his veteran players will be able to turn things on when the playoffs begin on Saturday?
No matter who takes the field in Atlanta, the Phillies will play to win. If they do, it should open the door for a first-round matchup against Saint Louis.
The Cardinals finish up the regular season in Houston against an Astros team with the worst record in baseball.
But be careful what you wish for.
Historically, the wild card team has done well in the postseason, mostly because its streaking as it enters the playoffs, as is the case with the Cardinals this season.
And for what it’s worth, the Phillies lost six of nine regular season contests with Saint Louis.
On the flip side, if the Phillies don’t do enough in this series to prevent the Braves from making the postseason, Atlanta becomes a potential opponent in the NLCS — and that could get very interesting.
But none of that matters to the Phillies. They’re not concerned about who they face in the playoffs — and they shouldn’t be. Philadelphia has home-field advantage throughout for a reason. They are the best team in baseball for reason. They’re the heavy favorite to win the World Series for a reason.
The final three games are significant — but only because they could decide the Phillies first obstacle on their way to what they and their fans hope is another parade down Broad Street.
Reported by Dan Majka, CBS Philly.