Well, I can’t decide, either. Atop a well-pitched National League division series Game Two, between the Braves and the Phillies, who put on the better defensive show between Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson and third baseman Austin Riley?
Don’t ask either one.
“I give him the credit,” Riley said, after the Braves banked the 3-0, series-tying win. “Just because running straight out, over the head is pretty tough.”
“I didn’t have to dodge a tarp,” Swanson said. “The guy, once again, a very under-appreciated defender, a lot more athletic than people give him credit for. The guy’s a gamer.”
That was like trying to choose between Lux Guardian and Lux Legacy vacuum cleaners. But come on, gentlemen. Quit being coy.
We might hand Swanson the slight advantage, though. With two out in the top of the sixth, Swanson ran out from shortstop into shallow left field chasing J.T. Realmuto’s bloop with center fielder Michael Harris II and left fielder Eddie Rosario pouring in from their positions. One false step or one body bump might have meant a base hit to a club that isn’t terrible at turning two outs into a run-scoring chance.
Swanson took a small diving leap to nail it just before his glove hit the grass followed by the rest of him. “Play of the game, so far,” my game notes say. But if you press him on it, he’ll tell you he had a slightly unfair advantage going in.
“I should get my parents in here,” he said, “because they threw me a gajillion balls just like that all the time growing up over my head. I was the epitome of the kid that would throw a tennis ball off a wall and ricochet it and run, try to catch it over my shoulder. Probably threw a lot of tennis balls onto the field, too, to disrupt my brother’s baseball games. But I feel like I’ve been doing that since I was five.”
Two innings later, the Phillies had one out and Jean Segura aboard after a long drive to the left field wall that might have been a double was turned into a long single—thanks to Rosario playing the carom as if according to a script. He’s not the best defensive left fielder overall, but he has a powerful enough throwing arm that that kind of carom play keeps the other guy’s slugging percentage from creeping upward.
Then Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott popped a 1-2 service from Atlanta reliever Raisel Iglesias to the left side, beyond third base. Riley kicked his horse, ran it down, and reached to snap the ball into his glove above the Truist Park tarp roll—about a nanosecond before he would have hit that roll with a rib cage-cracking clank allowing Stott a reprieve.
“Couple of crazy catches,” said Braves first baseman Matt Olson. “Dansby going back, I think Rosario was going to have the play at it first. Rosario was pretty deep.”
“For me, that’s my best friend, is a good defense,” said Braves starter Kyle Wright, who kept the Phillies to a pair of hits and a walk while striking out six and turning his breaking balls loose enough to keep them out of balance. His only serious threat came when Bryce Harper, still in the Phillies’ designated hitter role, led off the second with an opposite-field double to left, took third when Nick Castellanos lined out to third, but was stranded by an unassisted ground out to first and a swinging strikeout.
“I try to get guys to put it on the ground. When they make catches like that, that’s good, too. That’s been one of my biggest weapons this year, I believe, is the defense.”
Phillies starter Zack Wheeler was almost as effective until he had two outs in the bottom of the sixth and perhaps got himself a little taken out of his game after his first pitch to Ronald Acuña, Jr. ran in hit the Braves’ right fielder on the inside part of his right elbow. Wheeler looked ashen on the mound as Braves trainers tended Acuña, who shook it off enough after about seven minutes to stay in the game and take first.
Swanson then worked out a full count walk to provide the Braves’ first man in scoring position all night to that point. Then Olson grounded one that took a tweener hop through Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins and sent Acuña home. With both starting pitchers working so stingily to that point, a single run must have felt like a three-run homer to the Braves.
Riley batted next. He hit a slow, small bouncer to the third base side of the mound, slow enough that Wheeler running to his right had no play to make when he speared the ball, but Swanson had a second Braves run to score on it. Then Travis d’Arnaud—the Braves catcher who’d caught Wheeler on days enough when the pair were Mets teammates—shot one sharply up the pipe for the single that sent Olson home with run number three.
A.J. Minter, Iglesias (with a little help from Riley), and Kenley Jansen kept the Phillies quiet to finish off. Andrew Bellotti and another former Met, Noah Syndergaard, kept the Braves quiet likewise to finish off. But their shoulders weren’t quite as burdened as those of the two Braves infielders who had to go over theirs to make plays that could have sent either one to the infirmary.
“[Swanson] had to readjust, get back on it and make an over the shoulder catch,” Olson said. “And then Riley going up against the tarp. Weird angle. Couple of great catches, and that’s the kind of game it was tonight.”
Game Three is set for Citizens Bank Park Friday. The Phillies had just played fourteen straight games on the road including the wild card set in which they swept the Cardinals to one side and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, plus ancient catcher Yadier Molina, into retirement well short of a shot at one more World Series ring.
“To leave here with a split,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson, who had the interim tag removed well before the postseason began, “and go back home in front of a packed house of passionate people . . . I think will give our guys a little shot in the arm.”
Unless the Braves keep up the stingy pitching and luminous leather, of course. Then, that Philadelphia house packed with “passionate people” might want to give the Phillies a little shot in the head.