“Baseball is quintessentially American,” A. Bartlett Giamatti once wrote, “in the way that it tells you that, long as you travel and far as you go, out to the green frontier, the purpose is to get home.” Professor, if you watched National League division series Game Three from your seat in the Elysian Fields Friday, you saw ironclad evidence for the continuing truth of your sage soliloquy.
The Phillies came home having played fourteen straight games on the road, including their National League wild card series sweep out of the Cardinals. They’d split a tough pair against the Braves in Atlanta to open this set. Now the set came to Philadelphia, a sports city about which the most polite observations include that to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy.
That, and a six-run lead in the game’s first third leaves Phillie fan anything but comfortable. They’ve felt burned enough that they believe as firmly as few other fans that Berra’s Law is incontrovertible and impervious to alternative interpretation. They weren’t comfortable, most likely, until the 9-1 Phillies win was a finished transaction.
The first two and a third innings were quiet enough that you could almost hear a hair drop. Almost. Then came the bottom of the third against Braves starter Spencer Strider, the lad who broke out this year with a 1.83 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 4.49 strikeout-to-walk rate, a 1.00 walks/hits per inning pitched, and a 2.67 earned run average. A lad against whom the Phillies hit a measly .97 cents on the year.
This time, defying even the usual normal cliche about the postseason being far enough the proverbial kettle of fish above the regular season, the Phillies broke Strider in half in the bottom of the third. By the time the six-run inning was over, Phillie fan would have forgiven almost (underline that) anything.
Strider and his Phillies starting counterpart Aaron Nola looked almost unreachable through the first two and a half, with Strider having the slightly better end of things thanks to a pair of one-two-three innings. But Strider didn’t exactly plan to open the bottom of the third by walking Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh on four straight pitches. Nor did he plan for his pickoff attempt to bound wild and past his first baseman Matt Olson.
Nor did he plan for Olson, hustling into foul ground to get the ball, to throw a strike that would have been perfect except for the short hop to third baseman Austin Riley two feet down the line in front of the pad, enabling Marsh to dive in with real estate to spare.
The Braves righthander certainly didn’t plan on Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott wringing him to a ninth pitch on 2-2 before lining a one-out RBI double to the rear corner of the right field grass. He and the Braves may have had double play plans by way of handing Kyle Schwarber a free pass, but as John Lennon might have sung if a baseball fan, life like baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
Rhys Hoskins enunciated Lennon’s truth rather harshly when Strider threw him a first-pitch fastball so fat it might as well have been a beach ball, and he sent it promptly into the left field seats. Strider didn’t exactly feed Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto following up a meatball slider, but Realmuto caught enough hold of it to shoot the ball into left for a single and Strider out of the game.
Enter Dylan Lee, a somewhat late-blooming lefthanded relief pitcher with a Strider-like WHIP on the season and an excellent 2.66 FIP who kept lefthanded batters to a .158/.169/.224 slash line this year. Checking in at the plate was Bryce Harper. And Lee, too, failed to remember what happens when you make your first pitch so glandular Stevie Wonder himself could see and hit it.
Harper was only too happy to remind him with a launch that traveled two-thirds of the way to the back of the lower right field seats. It made Harper the only man ever to hit two bombs and collect seven hits in his first five postseason games in the Phillies’ fatigues. And it yanked the Philles to a 6-0 lead.
Lee shook off Nick Castellanos’s immediate follow-up base hit to left with a pop out to second (Alec Bohm) and a pop out to shortstop (Marsh, whose walk started the carnage in the first place) to end the frame before the Phillies could get ornery again.
But the Braves were up against Aaron Nola, the Phillies ace who had a splendid regular season and kept batters 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position through the top of the sixth Friday. Then Nola ran into a little hot spot in that frame, surrendering a leadoff double to Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson before walking Olson. But he struck Riley out on a high riding fastball before luring catcher Travis d’Arnaud into dialing Area Code 6-4-3.
Until he hadn’t, thanks to the throw on to first baseman Hoskins hitting the heel of the mitt and thudded to the dirt. And Braves center fielder Michael Harris II spanked a high hopper to right for a base hit to sent Swanson home with the first Atlanta run.
Harris stole second with Braves designated hitter Marcel Ozuna at the plate. You could almost hear every heart in Citizens Bank Park become an elevator snapping its cables and plunging to the floor, until Nola threw something Ozuna could whack into an inning-ending ground out alone.
Nola’s outing ended with a leadoff single by Braves pinch hitter Orlando Arcia opening the top of the seventh. Jose Alvarado entered and pounded strikeouts upon William Contreras and Ronald Acuña, Jr., before he got Swanson to line out right to Schwarber playing him somewhat deep in left field.
So what the hell was up with that little chorus of the infamous Tomahawk Chop and Chant around the Bank in the bottom of the seventh—before the Schwarbinator broke his plate drought with a base hit and Hoskins drew a walk, before Realmuto forced Hoskins at second while setting first and third up, prodding Braves reliever Jake Odorizzi out and Jesse Chavez in?
The crowd might have been trying to mock Braves fans in the yard with the game getting closer to the bank for the Phillies. Might. The Chop and Chant are dubious enough in Truist Park, but Philadelphia isn’t exactly lacking for its own history of racial tensions, either. Not clever. Not funny.
Better to let Braves fan have it the way Harper did, once Chavez went to work. Harper sent a 2-2 cutter to the left center field wall, Harris running it down, leaping to one-hand it, and hitting the wall to knock the ball loose to the track as fast as it hit the glove in the first place, sending Schwarber’s pinch runner Matt Vierling home and Realmuto to third. Better, too, to do it the way Castellanos did to follow immediately, with a two-run single to right center to send two more home.
But no. The crowd cranked the Chop and Chant up again in the top of the ninth, clutching red rally towels, as Connor Brogdon went to work erasing the Braves in order. There are those more offended by the driving bat spike Hoskins committed starting up the first base line to run his home run out than by the Chop and Chant.
Not brilliant. The Phillies’s kind of homecoming deserved better.