The big question is no longer whether the Phillies can win the National League East for the first time since 2011. It is now this: Can they finish with a winning record for the first time since 2011?

Such a discussion would have seemed ridiculous five weeks ago when the Phillies were 13 games over .500 and in first place in the division. But heading into their weekend series with the Miami Marlins, the free-falling Phillies are just three games over .500 and looking for their first series win since they completed a four-game sweep of Miami on Aug. 5.

The Phils (74-71) have 13 games left against the N.L. East (three each against Miami and the Mets and seven against Atlanta) and four games at Colorado. The Phils' 28-35 record against their own division is directly responsible for their 2018 demise. The first-place Braves, by contrast, are 42-21 against the NL East and 40-43 against the rest of baseball.

Always in search of good news here at Extra Innings, the Nationals lost to the Cubs in 10 innings Thursday, giving the Phillies a one-game lead in the riveting race for second place.

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Phillies manager Gabe Kapler says you cannot point to one reason to explain the Phillies’ collapse.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler says you cannot point to one reason to explain the Phillies’ collapse.

A true team effort

Asked how he would explain the fall of the 2018 Phillies after Wednesday night's loss to Washington, manager Gabe Kapler said, "There's no one thing to point to."

Boy, is he right.

When we last saw the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies had just completed a four-game sweep to improve to 63-48 and they held a 1 1/2-game lead over Atlanta in the standings. They are 11-23 since that point and have fallen to 7 1/2 games out, a net loss of nine games over a 34-game stretch.

After the Marlins series, the team ERA was 3.77. The starters were 39-32 with a  3.74 ERA, and the bullpen was 24-16 with a 3.81 ERA. Since that series, the starters are 8-16 with a 4.77 ERA and the bullpen is 3-7 with a 4.40 ERA. Aaron Nola is the only starter to pick up more than one victory over the last 34 games.

After the Marlins series, the Phillies were hitting .238 with a .320 on-base percentage and a .718 OPS while averaging 4.4 runs. Since that series, they have hit .235 with a .302 on-base percentage and a .690 OPS while averaging 3.6 runs.

There is a long list of players who have been in steep decline since that sweep of the Marlins.

– Reliever Seranthony Dominguez had a 2.03 ERA at the end of that series. He has a 7.50 ERA since.

– Vince Velasquez was 8-8 with a 3.80 ERA after that series. He is 1-3 with a 6.66 ERA since.

– Zach Eflin was 8-3 with a 3.61 ERA after that series and is 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA since.

– Jake Arrieta was 9-6 with a 3.11 ERA after that series and is 1-3 with a 4.69 ERA since.

– Cesar Hernandez was hitting .261 with a .370 on-base percentage after that series and is hitting .240 with a .331 OBP since.

– Rhys Hoskins was hitting .264 with a .375 OBP and .892 OPS after that series and has batted .213 with a .322 OBP and .764 OPS since.

– Odubel Herrera was hitting .276 with a .793 OPS and 19 home runs and 37 extra-base hits after that series and has hit .177 with two home runs and five extra-base hits since.

– Maikel Franco was hitting .276 with an .802 OPS after that series and has hit .235 with a .690 OPS since.

– Nick Williams was hitting .262 with 15 home runs after that series and has hit .241 with two home runs since.

Yes indeed, it has been a team effort.

The rundown

The Phillies decided to stick with the young trio of Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Nick Pivetta at the back of their starting rotation instead of dealing for veteran help at the trade deadline. Those three have struggled down the stretch, as our Scott Lauber points out, and it will be interesting to see how the Phillies handle that development in the offseason.

In case you missed it Thursday, I wrote about how the jury is still out on the young trio of Scott Kingery, J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro. 

If you believe in miracles, then you won't want to click on the next link. If you know it's time to wait until next year, then feel free to take a look at the Phillies' 2019 schedule, which was released a few weeks ago.

Important dates

Tonight: Zach Eflin faces Wei-Yin Chin in series opener vs. Miami, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Vince Velasquez goes against the Marlins, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday: Series finale vs. Marlins, 1:35 p.m.
Monday: New York Mets come to town for three-game series, 7:05 p.m.
Thursday: Phillies open huge series in Atlanta. Oh, never mind.

The Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman, right, gets a high-five from third-base coach Bob Henley after a walk-off home run against the Phillies.
Nick Wass / AP
The Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman, right, gets a high-five from third-base coach Bob Henley after a walk-off home run against the Phillies.

Stat of the day

If it seems as if the Phillies have had their share of gut-wrenching defeats this season, that's because they have. The team record in walk-off games is 7-9. The nine walk-off losses are tied for the second most in the National League with the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals. Only the Chicago Cubs (7-10) have had more walk-off losses among NL teams. Minnesota (6-12) and Cleveland (4-11) have had the most walk-off losses this season. The first-place Atlanta Braves are 7-2 in walk-off games this season, including their win over the Phillies on opening day.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @brookob.

It seems like in every sport, a player benefits from having a set position, and knowing their role. After another blown save opportunity Tuesday night, it seems like the Phillies should realize at this point that having a designated closer could only help them. We know Kapler has been against using the bullpen in set roles but at this point, is he starting to reconsider? Is it too late to have someone transition into being a closer for the rest of the season?

Caitlin L., via email

Answer: Thanks for reading, writing and a terrific question, Caitlin. Your point about players' being comfortable in set roles sits at the very heart of the great debate about Gabe Kapler's managerial style. He believes his relievers should be ready to pitch in any inning and the best way to use them is by inserting his best pitcher in the most difficult situation whether that is in the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth innings. Of course, he also believes position players should be able to play multiple positions.

Is he right in the way he has used his bullpen? The Phillies are pretty much in the middle of the pack in bullpen statistics. The bullpen ERA of 3.96 is 15th in baseball; they have blown 19 saves, tied for the 14th most; and their 67.8 save percentage is 15th in baseball. Those things would indicate that Kapler's use of his relievers produced an average bullpen this season.

As for your question about the manager's changing the way he handles the 'pen, I would say the odds of that are slim.