When the Phillies had a day off earlier this month in sunny San Diego, Gabe Kapler used the idle time to find a dentist and get his pearly whites cleaned. (You can't make this stuff up, folks.) Here's hoping the manager did something a bit more enjoyable yesterday in the nation's capital.

The Phillies have only three more days off before the end of the regular season, and it's shaping up to be an absolutely insane finish in the up-for-grabs National League. The final, frantic 38-game sprint for a playoff berth begins tonight in Washington. Sweep and the Phillies can pretty much bury the Nationals for good. Get swept and, well, it will be a three-team race in the NL East.

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—  Scott Lauber (extrainnings@philly.com)

Phillies sluggers Rhys Hoskins (left) and Maikel Franco hope to be doing a lot more celebrating in the final 38 games of the season.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Phillies sluggers Rhys Hoskins (left) and Maikel Franco hope to be doing a lot more celebrating in the final 38 games of the season.

Handicapping a wild National League race

When the Phillies begin play tonight, they will be one game behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves. But they also will sit smack dab in the middle of seven National League teams that are separated by no more than three games in the standings.

If the American League in 2018 is defined by a handful of "super teams," the NL is a picture of parity.

There is nothing resembling a dominant team in the NL. Every contender, from the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs to the upstart Phillies and Braves, is pocked with warts. It's conceivable that no NL team will finish with more than 90 wins, a situation that last occurred in 2007. It's also possible, perhaps even likely, that not everything will be settled after 162 games.

The Cubs stand a 96.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs' up-to-the-minute projections, in part because of their three-game cushion over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central but also because of their relatively soft schedule. The Dodgers are next at 80.5 percent, likely a reflection of their league-best run differential.

Beyond that, though, Fangraphs is hedging its bets. The Phillies, Braves, Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks each get better than 50-50 odds of making the playoffs, even though only three of those teams can get in. And that's if the surging St. Louis Cardinals don't elbow their way into October. Right now, Fangraphs gives them a 34.2 percent chance, trailing the Colorado Rockies (43.2 percent).

The NL East figures to come down to the seven head-to-head meetings between the Phillies and Braves over the season's final two weeks. But a wild-card berth could be within reach as a consolation prize.

On paper, the Phillies have a softer schedule (.494 opponent winning percentage) than the Braves (.520), although they have lost four series within the past two months to sub-.500 teams. The Phillies also have played far better at home (41-22) than on the road (27-34) and have 20 of their final 38 games away from Citizens Bank Park.

In other words, it's a coin flip. And it probably will keep us watching until the very end.

The rundown

Wilson Ramos was wildly popular during his seven seasons with the Nationals. But he also knows he's not likely to receive a warm reception this week upon returning to Washington as a member of the rival Phillies, who recently acquired him to be a middle-of-the-order difference-maker. So far, Ramos is making a good impression on his new team.

It will be worth taking a long lunch break Thursday to watch Aaron Nola's showdown with Max Scherzer in a matinee series finale in D.C. David Murphy tried to put Nola's season into context by comparing it to other great seasons from Phillies aces.

In case you missed it this past weekend, Bob Brookover wrote about manager Gabe Kapler. Like him or not, Kapler remains the face of the Phillies because he's endlessly compelling.

One more look at the Phillies' visit to Williamsport on Sunday through the lens of Inquirer/Daily News photography ace Yong Kim. I especially like the shot of Rhys Hoskins' hanging out with the Canadian Little Leaguers.

Important dates

Tonight: Phillies open a pivotal three-game series in D.C., 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Stephen Strasburg returns from disabled list to face Phils, 7:05 p.m.
Thursday: Aaron Nola vs. Max Scherzer in matchup Cy Young would have loved, 1:05 p.m.
Friday: Phillies open a three-game series in Toronto, 7:07 p.m.
Saturday: Oh, Canada! British Columbia's Nick Pivetta faces the Jays, 4:07 p.m.

Carlos Santana (left), Wilson Ramos (right) and other Phillies players posing for a selfie with members of the Panama Little League team Sunday in Williamsport.
AP
Carlos Santana (left), Wilson Ramos (right) and other Phillies players posing for a selfie with members of the Panama Little League team Sunday in Williamsport.

Stat of the day

In 19 games since July 30, the Phillies starting rotation — Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, and spot-starting rookie Ranger Suarez — has posted a 3.21 ERA, third best in the National League behind the Dodgers (2.68) and Cardinals (3.14). The starters have allowed 1.11 walks/hits per nine innings and only eight homers while holding opponents to a .237 average. They have given up two earned runs or fewer in 12 games and no more than four hits in 10 games.

The Phillies' record during the stretch: 10-9.

Just more proof that the Phils have missed several opportunities lately to gain more ground in the NL East.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Everyone talks about benching [Odubel] Herrera or [Carlos] Santana, but what is [Cesar] Hernandez hitting after Memorial Day? Why has Scott Kingery not started once at second base this year? Given that Santana is hitting .217, shouldn't they consider bringing Joey Meneses up? To be honest, I've seen enough of Santana. — Ed M., submitted via e-mail

Answer: Thanks, Ed, for the question. Like many fans, you sound frustrated (or maybe sickened?) by the inconsistency of the offense. The Phillies have long valued Hernandez's on-base ability, and he has reached at a .369 clip, 14th out of 72 National League hitters with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Kingery, incidentally, is 72nd with a .267 on-base percentage, which should explain why he has been playing less, not more. But your general point on Hernandez is well-taken. He's batting .224 with a .331 OBP since the All-Star break, hardly the numbers you want from a leadoff man.

Meneses has been mashing in triple A, leading the International League with 22 home runs. But he isn't on the 40-man roster, which puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to getting called up. If anyone is going to take at-bats away from Santana, it's recently acquired Justin Bour. But Kapler is on record that Santana will continue to get most of the playing time at first base, and there's no reason to doubt that he means it.