For the Philadelphia Phillies, the last few days have brought with them a measure of reassurance.
It was only a month ago that this season’s overwhelming National League favorites were watching their season circle the drain. Losses in six of their first seven games after the All-Star Break had increased the deficit in the NL East standings to a disheartening seven games behind the steady Atlanta Braves.
Perhaps the reality of being irrelevant in the playoff chase woke up the slumping Phils, who have gone 18-5 since July 22 and now trail the Braves by just 2.5 games.
Another source of encouragement, as the Phillies prepare to welcome back Chase Utley and Ryan Howard this week, is the fact that they now find themselves atop the NL Wild Card standings with only 45 games remaining.
While there may be a sense of relief surrounding the past month’s developments, the key to the Phillies success in the 2010 postseason will be their refusal to find satisfaction in their wild card position.
In fact, they must go two steps further.
First, the Phillies must reel in the Braves. Next, they must overcome the current four game lead of the San Diego Padres for the best record in the National League. The first accomplishment would land the Phillies their fourth straight NL East title. The second outcome would secure the most valuable commodity in the National League this season: home field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
Home field advantage is undoubtedly coveted by everyone in the playoff hunt, but may mean the most to the Fightins.
How much of a boost do the Phillies get from their home field?
Well, if the goose bump moments of the 2008 and 2009 seasons have already taken a back seat to our infatuation with the here and now, then perhaps two recent thrillers against the Reds and Dodgers can remind everyone of the magic of the Phillies’ home turf.
Each of these dramatic comebacks saw the Phillies score eight runs in their final two at bats to pull off the unlikeliest of wins. The first ended on a Ryan Howard walk-off homer in the 10th, and the second with a surge that once again deflated the ego of the soon-to-be demoted Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton.
Anyone who watched or attended these games once again felt the high-voltage atmosphere present when 44,000 Phillie Phanatics bear down on a visiting team.
It seems impossible that any other National League team could enjoy the type of home-field advantage provided by the Phillies’ perpetually sold-out grounds.
Unfortunately, a closer look at the home records of the National League playoff contender’s serves as a myth-buster to the aforementioned statement. Listed below are the 2010 home and road records of each of the National League playoff contenders (expressed in games over/under .500).
26 over at home, six under on road
19 over at home, five under on road
18 over at home, three under on road
14 over at home, nine over on road
14 over at home, one over on road
10 over at home, six over on road
So, while the tendency is to believe that the Phillies get the biggest boost from their paying customers, the advantages enjoyed by the other NL contenders are often just as impressive.
Just as noteworthy is the fact that, other than the Padres, the road records of every team in contention are all south of .500.
The one thing the Phillies can truly claim as an advantage is that they are the hottest home team in the league since the beginning of July, with a record of 16-4. They are once again making their opponents squeeze the bat and ball a bit tighter in close games at Citizen’s Bank Park.
However, the major difference for the Phillies between this season and the previous two is that they are not as dominant on the road. During the 2008 and 2009 regular seasons, the Phillies were second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best road record in baseball, achieving a mark of 22 games over .500 during that span (compared to this season’s mark of three games under .500).
Despite their road success in those seasons, the 2008 and 2009 playoffs demonstrated that when the Phillies enter postseason play, there’s no place like home. The Phillies home playoff record during that time was 12-3, while their road record was only 8-6.
It definitely does not take an expert analyst to conclude that home field advantage is important in any sport. But the Phillies have proven over the past two seasons that when it really counts, there is no team that gains as much advantage from their home digs as they do.
In no way is any of this meant to diminish the heart shown by a team riddled with injuries that has managed to move into the wild card lead with only just over a quarter of the season remaining. Making the playoffs is the goal of just about every Major League team.
The Phillies, however, should look to win the NL East again because it would add to a string of division titles.
They should then prioritize securing home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs because that could be the edge that sends them to another World Series.
It’s time for the Phillies to do what they do best, and that is to play their toughest and soundest baseball as summer winds down.
It’s also time for Phillies fans to do what they do best as fall approaches: Provide the biggest advantage of any home crowd in baseball.