The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

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