The Phillies are off to their best start since 1993. How will they handle being frontrunners?

Philadelphia Phillies

A few nights ago, as J.T. Realmuto discussed another resounding Phillies victory, someone asked if he’s afraid that they may be peaking in May.

“No,” the catcher said, smirking. “This team’s built for the long haul.”

The entire exchange dripped with irony. The Phillies were 21-29 in 2022 and 25-32 last year before finally hearing the alarm clock, scrambling to pull themselves together, and making the playoffs as a wild card. Entering this season, then, all of the focus was on being awake from the start.

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So, here are the Phillies, 26-12 early birds, with the best record in the majors and the third-best through 38 games in their 142-season history, and all anyone seems to be thinking about is … can they keep it up?

The past informs us that a 110-win pace is usually unsustainable. The schedule will toughen. Challenges will arise. The Phillies haven’t lost back-to-back games since April 23-24, or three in a row all season. At some point, they will experience a downturn.

But they did get to Game 6 of the World Series in 2022 and Game 7 of the NL Championship Series last year. Even though most projection systems (hello, PECOTA and Fangraphs) put the Phillies well behind the Braves and Dodgers, this rapid success isn’t out of the blue. There are three powerhouses in the National League, not just two.

Maybe the question, then, isn’t whether the Phillies zoomed too quickly to the pole position. It’s how they will handle driving the pace car rather than having to floor it in June and July just to get back in the wild-card race.

Without sounding overconfident, manager Rob Thomson believes that any concern over the Phillies being complacent is misguided. Indeed, in actions and words, the players appear to be fueled by the unfinished business of back-to-back October runs that ended in disappointments.

It starts with the biggest star on the roster. Bryce Harper banged two three-run homers and a grand slam in a three-game span this week despite getting maybe one pitch to hit per game. But he was so angry after grounding out with a runner on second in the eighth inning of a 5-3 loss to the Blue Jays Wednesday that he cleared the top step of the dugout with a two-handed fling of his bat.

“It’s not just Bryce that’s competitive,” Thomson said Wednesday, before the Phillies snapped an 11-game home winning streak and an overall seven-game roll. “I think the entire room is competitive, and they feed off of each other that way. What happened in the last two years at the end is really motivating for this group.”

Said Kyle Schwarber: “Everyone’s disappointed after a loss. It doesn’t matter if we’re 10 games above .500 or 10 games below .500, a loss is a loss.”

But the last two Phillies teams found their identity in their lousy starts. In 2022, it took 160 games to end a decadelong playoff drought; last year, they clinched in Game 157. Both times, they finished 14 games behind the Braves.

Everything was more difficult than necessary. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

» READ MORE: Phillies vs. Braves: Who’s chasing whom? The subplots that make up baseball’s best rivalry.

By comparison, the Phillies vaulted into first place last Friday night, 33 games into the season. It marked the first time since April 2, 2023 that the Braves didn’t lead the NL East. The Phillies were unsurprised, but it remains an unfamiliar feeling.

How will the Phillies handle frontrunning? If they keep piling up wins — and 19 of the next 22 games are against the Marlins (10-29), Mets (18-18), Nationals (18-18), Rockies (8-28), Giants (17-21), and Cardinals (15-21) — will they consider throttling back pitchers’ workloads or building in extra time off for lineup regulars?

Thomson second-guessed his use of Trea Turner, who started the first 33 games and played all but nine innings at shortstop before straining his left hamstring while scoring from second base on a wild pitch last Friday night. He’s expected to miss at least six weeks.

“He was on base so much, it takes its toll on your legs,” Thomson said. “It’s tough to gauge. He’s a guy that plays 160 games a year typically. I don’t think he was overplayed, but if he was, that’s my fault. I’ll wear that.

“We have to make sure we keep people healthy. We can’t push it so hard that we’re putting people in jeopardy. So, we have to be smart about that.”

Especially because the most impressive thing about the Phillies’ blazing start has been their ability to tap into organizational depth.

To wit: Spencer Turnbull posted a 1.67 ERA in six starts in place of Taijuan Walker. Kody Clemens is 4-for-8 with a double, triple, and two homers in two fill-in starts. The Phillies have two shortstop alternatives: Edmundo Sosa or second baseman Bryson Stott, with Whit Merrifield at second. Either way, they are 4-1 since Turner went down.

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It’s the biggest difference in the Phillies from three seasons ago, when Harper was crowned NL MVP, Wheeler was the Cy Young runner-up, and a star-laden, top-heavy roster finished 82-80 and out of the playoffs.

And if the Phillies are able to stay at the front of the pack now, the strength of the back half of the roster will be the biggest reason why.

“If you look at a lot of really good teams in the league, they have depth,” Harper said. “If that’s starting pitching depth, or if that’s infield or hitting, or anything, a lot of really good teams have that. I think [president of baseball operations Dave] Dombrowski’s done a great job of rounding out our roster and making sure that we have those pieces that can come up at any point and help us win.”

And so, the Phillies arrived in Miami on the wings of their best start since 1993, when they were 27-11 through 38 games and wound up winning the pennant. The only time they started better than that was 1976, when they were 28-10 en route to a division crown.

Those teams led pretty much wire to wire. How will this group, forever chasing the Braves, handle being chased?

“[The mentality] shouldn’t change,” Thomson said. “We’ve got a good club. Just keep grinding, keep playing, keep being yourselves. You know?”

We’re about to find out if they do.

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