The lone saving grace of the Phillies' late tumble from postseason contention was that the baseball they played while exiting the race wasn't much uglier than what they played while taking part.

In fact, with the exception of the final scores, the difference was almost imperceptible. They couldn't hit consistently, really couldn't field, and pitched just well enough so that the outcome was usually in doubt.

Their high-water mark came a week after the trade deadline when they swept the Marlins to raise their record to 15 games over .500 and their lead over the Braves in the NL East to 1-1/2 games. Since then, entering the weekend series against Miami, the Phillies lost 23 of 34 games and played 11 straight series without winning a one of them. Considering that only two of those series were played against teams that would currently be included in the playoffs — the Red Sox and the Cubs — that's a heck of a feat.

During the slide, however, it wasn't as if they were getting crushed, or doing anything that was much better or worse than what they did in the previous four months. (Leaving aside that 20-run loss to the Mets, of course.) Of those 23 losses that effectively ended their season, 14 were either one-run or two-run defeats. They hung around, usually disastrously, but at least they hung around.

The Marlins might even perk them up this weekend and there will be something of a meaningless late surge at the tail end of the regular season. In fact, that would be totally in keeping with the character of a team that can't figure out whether it is any good.

The mathematics of actually saving the season are too daunting to even consider. Going into Friday's games, if the Braves played just .500 ball the rest of the way, the Phillies would have to go 16-1 in their remaining games to get a tie. Suffice it to say, that seems somewhat unlikely.

That leaves the question of exactly what to make of this season. The long run of contention was an unexpected treat, even if the flaws in the team also made it something of a mystery. Given the chance to swing big at the trade deadline, the front office declined, making a series of modest moves that couldn't slow the team's inexorable slide once it began.

The deadline discipline was heralded as the smart play, and, given that the Phillies were unlikely to last long in the playoffs if they qualified, it probably was. Still, getting through that postseason door isn't something to be taken for granted. The Phils haven't been there for seven years and there's no guarantee that the current group, promising though it is at times, will provide a return trip soon.

So, the team that was in first place on Aug. 5 took a pass on this season, and the next few years will determine whether that was the right move. After losing at least 89 games for five straight seasons, you might have thought the glimmer of a chance would have swayed the philosophy of general manager Matt Klentak, but you would have thought wrong.

Holding on to one's top prospects, rather than mortgaging the farm for short-term benefit, is all well and good. The wisdom of it does depend on the prospects, however, and whether that farm is really producing crops.

Had this opportunity arisen one or two years ago, you can be sure that J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and Maikel Franco would have been untouchables. No way the Phillies would have taken the uncertain present over their bright futures. Well, how about now?

Of course, you could make the same argument about Rhys Hoskins, who appears to be one of the few keepers in the creel. Take the argument into the future, and it's true that among the top current prospects — those guys far too valued to part with this season — there will be one or two difference makers, and a whole lot of guys who aren't. The trick is figuring out ahead of time which are which. Is Sixto Sanchez the guy? Adam Haseley? Adonis Medina? Enyel De Los Santos?

The Phillies aren't sure, so they chose to wait it out. They will do the waiting without director of player development Joe Jordan, an old-school scouting veteran who is good at those evaluations, but apparently preferred working for a less analytics-driven organization. It's quite possible the team's success in the next few seasons will be a referendum on Klentak's modern methods. We'll see about that one.

Meanwhile, this season lurches to a conclusion with the team having played neither for the present nor the future. They will have given Carlos Santana more than 600 plate appearances, and Jake Arrieta 30 starts, and allowed a stopgap such as Asdrubal Cabrera to delay the scouting process on their younger players. Those players will all be 33 years old when next season begins and are unlikely to be around when the Phils have their next shot at the playoffs.

They had one this season, though. Past tense and future imperfect.