Philadelphia Phillies designated hitter Bryce Harper (3) in action during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Friday, June 30, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

The first half of the MLB season is all about novelty and promise. The second half is about devastation and doing math while crying. 

The All-Star Game is two weeks away, meaning all the fake baseball the Phillies have been playing will soon become the most important baseball ever played. As they close out the first half, the Phillies face opponents who represent three of the states in which a team can exist: 

A beatable bottom-dweller, an unstoppable steamroller, and a scrappy underdog who refuses to calm down.

Let’s go through each and outline the level of difficulty awaiting the Phils. 

Nationals (33-48)

Citizens Bank Park
June 30-July 2

The Nationals aren’t good. In fact, they’re the only NL East team to not spend a lot of the season above the Phillies. 

But don’t be fooled! Washington couldn’t be happier to be without Juan Soto, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner. What kind of team that signs big name, big money free agents ever achieves any level of success anyway?

If you look at the right numbers, the Nationals have gotten more production from their current crop of space fillers than the All-Star square they’ve let walk or traded have been able to accomplish elsewhere, noted a recent Wash Post column. Joey Meneses better than Juan Soto? You bet. Remember that the next time Trea Turner is getting himself on base, getting himself to third, and bringing himself into score: Wouldn’t you rather that be C.J. Abrams, the guy with the fourth lowest OBP in baseball?

Still, even if the Nationals feel like they’re on an upward trajectory, it hasn’t led them anywhere but the bottom of the division in 2023. The Phillies certainly aren’t firing on all cylinders, but they’ve won 18 of their last 23, and they shouldn’t need them all to beat the Nats.

Rays (57-28)

Tropicana Field
July 4-6

The easy part is over. 

The Phillies go from playing one of the worst squads in the sport at home to playing the best team in baseball on the road. 

The Rays are so good, the worst thing that’s happened to them is a what you might call an inadvertent Tommy John massacre. With 13 out of 20 pitchers on their staff having received TJ surgery in the past, they are statistically more likely to need it again, according to John Romano of the Tampa Tribune. Some of them have already had it again. 

“Since the most accurate predictor of future ligament problems is a past Tommy John surgery, the Rays are aiming for the 2023 World Series from a particularly vulnerable position,” writes Romano.

But you’d have had a hard time convincing anyone watching the Rays this season that they’re vulnerable to anything. Their hot start put the rest of the league on notice and alarmed world leaders. Their .796 team OPS is third in all of baseball. They have hit 125 home runs, which is also third in baseball. They have stolen 99 bases, which is easily the highest total in the league. Their pitching staff has a 3.59 ERA, the lowest in…yep, all of baseball. As of this writing, they have a 99.8% chance to make the postseason, according to Baseball Reference. And the Phillies have to play them in their own stadium, where they’ve only lost 10 times in 44 games this season. 

A recent stumble seems to have been remedied by a dramatic ninth-inning comeback over the Diamondbacks, another pretty good team (that the Phillies won a series against earlier this month, btw). And shortstop Wander Franco’s frustrations about — being one of the best young players on the best team in the sport, I guess? — have been addressed with a stern benching that, well, let’s just go ahead and presume it has solved the problem.

The Phillies have Nick Castellanos and whoever else wants to show up offensively, a pitching staff with three starters you can trust with a lead (none of them being Aaron Nola), and a bullpen that can get outs when it’s not overexposed. 

But last year they beat a series of superior teams by generating pure vibes from Callum Scott and feeding Garrett Stubbs after midnight, so. Within every challenge comes a chance.

Marlins (48-34)

loanDepot Park
July 7-9

One of the biggest boons of the second half of the season will hopefully be that people stop referring to the Marlins as “surprising.” Was everyone startled when Jorge Soler’s hot start never cooled off? Yes. When Miami kept thriving with 2022 NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara’s ERA exploded over 4.00? Yes. When Jazz Chisholm, Jr. missed a bunch of time due to injury? Especially yes. 

Oh, and Luis Arraez. His consistency is terrifying. But it’s no longer a surprise. 

The Marlins haven’t come back to earth, and we need to accept that’s because they belong in space. Like the dolphins at the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Marlins have ascended beyond our world, for reasons we cannot comprehend. Yet. 

The Phillies’ biggest problem has been that every time they’ve won, the Braves have won too. What’s been even more annoying is that the Marlins have, too. All three teams swept their most recent opponents, ultimately changing nothing in the NL East as the Mets sad-tromboned their way deeper and deeper into the standings. 

The Marlins have to play the Braves before they meet the Phillies, so something HAS to change. If the Phillies can manage to win while the Marlins manage to lose a couple of times, it would do wonders for the 2.5 game lead Miami has in the NL Wild Card standings. 

And that’s it. After these last nine games, we’ll have a better idea of who the 2023 Phillies are, but likely determine our entire opinions of them based on the last game they play. There’s a whole second half of the MLB season in front of them to change what we think. 

Justin Klugh has been a Phillies fan since Mariano Duncan's Mother's Day grand slam. He is a columnist and features writer for Baseball Prospectus, and has written for The Inquirer, Baltimore Magazine,...