Four reasons the Phillies have emerged as legitimate contenders

Mark Townsend
Yahoo Sports Contributor

It’s already been a banner year for Philadelphia sports.

If there’s cherry to go on top of a sports sundae that includes the Philadelphia Eagle first-ever Super Bowl championship, it will come in the form of a Philadelphia Phillies run to the MLB postseason.

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On Saturday, that possibility took a notable step in the direction of becoming a reality. For the first time in seven seasons, the Phillies moved into sole possession of first place in the National League East after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays 2-1 at Citizens Bank Park.

The milestone doesn’t signify an official changing of the guard in the division. There’s still far too much baseball left to be played to make that proclamation. The top four teams — Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals and New York Mets — are only separated by 3.5 games, so chances are there will still be a lot of maneuvering in the standings.

It does, however, signify that the Phillies are firmly in the mix. After a long, slow rebuild that’s tested the patience of fans, there’s a palpable feeling that something special could be on the horizon.

Where it all leads will obviously be determined in the future. What we’ll focus on here are the main factors that have fueled the Phillies success so far in 2018 and put them in a prime position.

Aaron Nola (left) and Jake Arrieta have given the Phillies a dynamic duo atop their starting rotation. (AP)

A pair of aces

To be a contender, it helps to have an ace pitcher to lead the starting rotation. The Phillies arguably have a pair of them in Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.

After struggling with consistency in the past, Nola is enjoying a true breakout season at age 25. That continued in Saturday’s game, when he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Only a brief rain delay could break Nola’s momentum. The Blue Jays certainly didn’t have any answers. He ended up with a no-decision, but his one-run, 10-strikeout outing continued a string of gems that have put Nola in the ace conversation. His ERA through 11 starts is a sparking 2.27.

As for Arrieta, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing so far. The veteran right-hander has mixed a couple duds among his first nine Phillies starts. However, you’d barely know it by looking at his numbers. After tossing 6.2 scoreless innings against Atlanta on Wednesday, he lowered his season ERA to 2.45. The ability to put bad days behind him and truly dominate on his good days is why Philadelphia gave Arrieta a three-year, $75 million deal in spring training.

Taking care of business at home

With Saturday’s win, Philadelphia improved to an NL-best 19-8 at Citizens Bank Park this season.

That record is mighty impressive, and it’s all that really matters in the grand scheme of things. But when we say Philadelphia is taking care of business at home, we mean seriously taking care of business. They’ve outscored opponents 134-80, while hitting an NL-best 36 home homers.

Oh, and about those aces. They’re pretty good at home too.

The offensive core is coming of age

It’s difficult to call any of the Phillies core offensive players young guys when we’re seeing so many prospects around the league contributing between the ages of 19 and 21. Most of their core sits between 24 and 27. But it’s a deep core consisting of solid contributors like Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr.

Is there a true star in that bunch? It’s debatable. What isn’t debatable is that they’re all pretty good, and they’re all pushing together for the same cause.

Because of the Phillies talent, another pretty good young player, Nick Williams, has been forced to accept a bench role. He’s not only accepted the assignment, he’s owned it.

That selflessness is what it takes to produce a winner.

Gabe Kapler is settling in nicely

It was an undeniably rough start for the Phillies rookie manager. Kapler’s bullpen management in the early going was quite a mess. Enough so that some fans wondered if he was in over his head.

Since then, he’s found his footing and played his part in helping Philadelphia move up the standings. There will still be growing pains. Especially when it comes to the bullpen. But now that he’s figuring out where the parts fit, he’s sure to continue improving.

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