“You’ve got to beat the champs to be the champs,” said Bryce Harper just minutes after the game ended. The Phillies aren’t exactly the champs just yet. But the way they dispatched the Braves once their National League division series shifted to Citizens Banks Park, it won’t be simple to bet against them now.
These are not the uncohesive, porous Phillies who were down 22-29 and threw out the first manager as June got underway. Since executing Joe Girardi and installing his bench coach Rob Thomson on the bridge, the Phillies were the third-winningest team in the National League, behind the Braves they just vanquished and the Mets who became 101 game-winning also-rans last weekend.
They ground their way to the postseason despite a key element or two missing significant injury time, a just-enough pitching reshuffle, and prognosticators who assumed the almighty Braves—who had to grind their own way back to snatch the National League East in the first place—would do to them what they just finished doing.
They flattened the Braves 8-3 Saturday afternoon. It’s rather amazing what a team who’d spent seventeen straight days for fourteen straight games on the road can do once they get to come home at last. By the time Phillies relief ace Seranthony Domínguez blew Travis d’Arnaud away with a wind-generating swinging strikeout to end the game, they’d outscored the Braves 17-4 in division series Games Three and Four.
The defending world champions who were second in the league in runs scored on the regular season couldn’t rent, buy, embezzle, or forge runs once they left their own playpen in this set. Their starting pitching, usually considered one of their deepest contingencies this year, had only Kyle Wright’s magnificent Game Two performance to show for it.
Once they got to playing Saturday afternoon, almost everything a Brave threw was found by a Phillie bat when it hurt the most, sometimes for measured-doses mischief and sometimes for long-distance landings. And, unless the Braves were hitting solo home runs, whatever they hit when not striking out to the tune of fifteen batters found a Phillie glove.
This wasn’t exactly what the Braves planned to happen once they managed to overthrow the Mets and steal a division over half the world thought the Mets had in the safe deposit box.
“[T]he goal when we leave spring training is to win the division,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Until you win the division, you don’t have a chance to do anything special because you never know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what team’s going to get hot, what things have to go right for you to go deep into the postseason.”
The new postseason format may be the competition-diluting or compromising mishmash it happens to be, but one of the key reasons is that someone who doesn’t win the division—say, 25 or 6 someones in red or blue-on-red hats with big script Ps on the crowns—can do more than a few special things after they slip in through the second wild card door.
“They’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time,” said Snitker. “It’s a good club. They’ve got really good players, and they’re getting it going at the right time.”
Where to begin delineating the Braves’ engine seizure?
Maybe with poor Charlie Morton, who entered the game with a sub-one ERA in postseason elimination games but exited early with an elbow injury. But not before he was informed rudely that squirming out of one self-inflicted inning-opening jam is a reprieve, but squirming out of a second to follow immediately is not Phillies policy.
Bottom of the first—The wizened old righthander allowed the first two Phillies to reach base, Kyle Schwarber on an unintentional walk and Game Three hero Rhys Hoskins on a base hit, and escaped with his life and no score. Bottom of the second—Alec Bohm’s leadoff liner bounded off Morton’s forearm, then Morton struck Bryson Stott out before Jean Segura shot one past a diving Dansby Swanson at shortstop. First and third again.
No escape this time. Brandon Marsh, the Phillies center fielder whose long enough beard qualifies him well enough to audition for ZZ Top, saw a 2-2 curve ball arrive at the perfect level to send into the right field seats. One day after Hoskins hit a bat-spiking three-run homer to start the Phillie phun, Marsh equaled him for early drama if not for a celebratory gesture.
In the interim, Phillies starter Noah Syndergaard, last seen in postseason action throwing seven shutout innings at the Giants, in the 2016 NL wild card game the Mets ended up losing, didn’t let Orlando Arcia’s solo homer spoil his night. He sliced and diced the Braves otherwise with a very un-Thor like array of breakers and three innings of shutout, three-strikeout ball.
As if to reward the remade/remodeled Syndergaard, who became a Phillie near the regular season trade deadline after a first half as a struggling free-agent Angel, his catcher J.T. Realmuto let Morton’s relief Collin McHugh—entering after Braves manager Brian Snitker saw Morton just uncomfortable enough warming back up to hook him—feel it where it really hurt.
Realmuto had a little help, admittedly, from Ronald Acuña, Jr. who either didn’t look in that big a hurry or misread the play. Acuña moved almost no muscle when Realmuto’s deep fly eluded Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, taking a carom off the lower portion of the State Farm sign on the center field fence and rolling almost halfway to the right field track.
It let Realmuto—maybe the fastest-running catcher in a game not known for swift-afoot backstops—run himself into an inside-the-park homer and a 4-1 Phillies lead. He also ran himself into becoming the eighteenth player and first catcher to deliver an inside-the-parker in postseason play.
He couldn’t contain himself when he dove home and sprang up whooping it up. “I’m not usually a guy that shows a lot of emotion,” he told reporters postgame. “When I slid into home, I couldn’t help myself. I was so excited. Excited for this city. Excited for this team. It was one of those moments I’ll definitely remember forever.” Him and everyone else including the concessionaires in the Bank.
Matt Olson made a small stand for the Braves in the top of the next inning, when he jerked the first pitch he saw from Phillies reliever Andrew Bellatti over the right field fence with one out, but Bellatti shook it off as if it were just a mildly annoying mosquito, striking both d’Arnaud and Austin Riley out swinging with remarkable aplomb.
The bullpens kept things quiet enough on the field, if not among the Bank crowd itching to see the Phillies take it the distance to the National League Championship Series, until the bottom of the sixth. With A.J Minter—whose fifth inning work was as lights-out as he’d been most of last year’s run to the Braves’ World Series title—taking on a second inning’s work. Uh-oh.
Segura rapped a single to center with one out and stole second almost too handily with Marsh at the plate. Minter caught Marsh looking at a third strike, but then his 2-2 changeup caught the Schwarbinator on the fingers around the bat and, after a review challenge, took his base.
Exit Minter, enter Raisel Igelsias. And enter the Phillies showing they could peck away at you with just as much ease and pleasure as they could detonate the nukes against you.
Hoskins fought one off to dump it into shallow right that fell for a base hit. When Acuña lost track of the ball after it bounded off his glove, Segura came home with the fifth Philadelphia run. Realmuto then bounced one slowly up the third base line, slow enough that Riley playing it in front of the base dirt on the grass couldn’t get a throw to first in time, while Schwarber scored run number six and Hoskins held at second.
Then Bryce Harper—carrying a 1.674 series OPS to the plate with him—broke his bat while sneaking a base hit the other way left to send Hoskins home. Castellanos walked to load them up for Bohm but for the second time in the game the Phillies stranded the ducks on the pond. Not that it mattered. A 7-2 lead after a three-run pick-and-peck sixth was nothing to complain about.
D’Arnaud opened the Atlanta seventh with a first-pitch drive over the center field fence off Phillies reliever José Alvarado, starting a second inning’s work after a 32-minute rest during that bottom of the sixth. He then got two ground outs before yielding to Zack Eflin for the inning-ending swinging strikeout of William Contreras.
Eflin worked a one-two-three top of the eighth. Harper soon faced Kenley Jansen in an unusual-looking, from-far-enough-behind appearance, and had a that’s-what-you-think answer to d’Arnaud’s blast. He sliced Jansen’s fadeaway cutter the other way into the left field seats. Then it was time for Sir Anthony to ride in, dispatch the Braves by striking out the side, and let Philadelphia know the Phillies reached the next plateau.
“This is step two in what we’ve been through,” said Harper, whose regular season absence with a shoulder issue limiting him to the designated hitter role and then a thumb fracture could have deflated the Phillies but didn’t. “Step one being the wild card. This being step two and we’ve got two more (steps).”
Step three: either the Padres or the Dodgers in the NLCS. Step four: You have to ask? Taking things one step at a time works big for these Phillies hanging with the big boys. So far.