So what do the Phillies owe the San Diego Padres and the great moral compass of baseball when the Phils begin their final three games of the season Friday night against the Atlanta Braves?
As the weekend opens, the Padres are desperately trying to worm their way into the playoffs. They could do so by catching the San Francisco Giants for the NL West title, or by catching the Braves for the league's wild-card spot.
The latter won't happen, however, if the Braves win at least two games against the Phillies. In that case, Atlanta will have a minimum of 92 wins, and, since the Padres and Giants are playing each other, the Braves would be guaranteed to finish with a better record than one of them.
It is quite a predicament the Padres have gotten themselves into, and much of it is their own fault. San Diego had a 61/2-game lead in the division on Aug. 25 before the bottom somehow fell out during a 10-game losing streak, and the Pads were on a 12-21 stretch heading into Thursday night's game against the Chicago Cubs.
The Giants could theoretically be the odd team out as well, depending on their weekend set at home with the Padres and on the doings at Turner Field in Atlanta. San Francisco has played better down the stretch. Maybe the Giants have more of a right to the postseason. Of course, if they hadn't been in fourth place, just one game over .500, on the Fourth of July, maybe all this drama could have been avoided for them.
As far as feeling sorry for what these teams are going through, however, the Phillies could legitimately have two words for them: Boo hoo. With all the injuries they endured this season, it could easily be the Phils scratching at the door to get in. But their management went out and picked up a top-of-the-rotation starter to solidify the pitching, and their physical ailments have mostly healed at the right time. When you compile a 47-18 record since July 21, and a 21-6 record in September, you earn the right to have a few things go your way.
But what is the proper way to handle the final games? Do you just run a B-squad lineup onto the field as if these games were played at the end of a long March bus ride to Sarasota? Or do you make the Braves earn their spot, and keep your own team sharp in the process?
There are some record-book issues, but those don't count for much. If the Phillies were to sweep Atlanta and finish with 98 wins, it would be the second-most wins in team history, behind the 1976 and 1977 teams that won 101 each. Interesting, but not very meaningful.
Charlie Manuel has indicated that he's going to cut the cake somewhere in the middle, which might not make them very happy in San Diego, but the Padres could have prevented these problems themselves.
Neither Roy Halladay nor Roy Oswalt will take another turn in the rotation as they rest up for the beginning of the National League division series, and while Cole Hamels is likely to get one of the starts in Atlanta, he's expected to throw a limited number of pitches. Oswalt threw only 67 pitches in his last outing. Hamels could be shut down in the same way, or even earlier.
After Kyle Kendrick pitches Friday, the other starting slots are open. Joe Blanton, who finished the season with 13 consecutive starts without a loss, will be rested for the bullpen role he'll take in at least the first round. It is likely that at least one of the games against Atlanta will be constructed with an-inning-here-an-inning-there for the regular relievers.
As for the lineup, Manuel will probably be playing Jimmy Rollins in order to get him back to game sharpness following his hamstring injury, but the other regulars will be used judiciously.
"We will play some front-line players," Manuel said, but maybe only once or twice for each of them during the weekend.
It is a three-way balancing act, with the Phillies trying to set up for the postseason by getting some rest, while simultaneously not lulling the hitters to sleep, and while trying to maintain at least the appearance of integrity for the good people of San Diego and San Francisco. That's a lot to consider, but the game will survive either way.
If Atlanta wins the series and the wild card - having earned it or not - the Phillies will almost certainly open the division series against the Cincinnati Reds. On the surface, that seems like a good matchup for them, and a good way to exit the weekend. But baseball lets you control only so much. Sometimes the game takes over and it can be a hard one to play - even when you're really trying to win.