Phillies/Braves is an Old-Time, Heavyweight Prize Fight that Could Determine this Year's Pennant
Not since May has there been a thought that the Phillies’ current four-game series with the Braves at Citizens Bank Park, or the three-gamer next week in Atlanta, would be bellwether matchup between two teams battling for N.L. East supremacy.
The Braves ran away and hid from the rest of the division long ago.
But there were always going to be eyeballs on these seven games as it’s seemingly more likely every day that if the Phillies get past the Wild Card round, the Braves will be there waiting for them for the second straight season.
As such, those eyeballs are watching to see how the two teams match up and then make their own predictions on what could happen in another possible five games in early October.
Much of what was said after the first two games of this series – a 10-8 loss in extra innings and a 7-5 win in the nightcap of a doubleheader – has skewed negative.
The Phillies pitching is so badly leaking oil right now.
The Phillies struck out 27 times in two games.
The Phillies defense was shaky, again.
The Phillies had a runner thrown out on the basepaths, again.
The Braves are just too damn good.
— Sportskeeda Baseball (@sportskeeda_mlb) September 12, 2023
Every last negative sentiment is understandable. The Phillies pitchers have not been great, of late. The Phillies do have a lot of swing and miss in their lineup. With apologies to Ranger Suarez, who is arguably the best fielding pitcher in baseball, the Phillies aren’t chockfull of Gold Glove caliber players in their regular lineup (although Bryson Stott may get some consideration this season). The Phillies are over-aggressive on the basepaths, and yes, that is equal parts exhilarating and frustrating.
And yes, the Braves are damn good.
It’s that last one I want to focus on for a moment.
I know, I know, why focus on the other team? Why take up your time reading to continue to tell you something you already know?
Because hopefully, when you’re done, you will see things my way and that’s this:
There are only two teams that are complete enough to represent the National League in the World Series:
The Braves and the Phillies.
Again, I know, I need to get checked out because there might something short circuiting in my brain.
Seriously, the Dodgers have two superstars in Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, but their pitching staff is completely depleted, and don’t lose sight of how distracting the whole Julio Urias situation is for a clubhouse. On top of that, Dave Roberts always seems to manage postseason games in the most head-scratching way possible.
Milwaukee still has a very flawed lineup, and while their pitching is probably the best of all the N.L. contenders, they aren’t perfect, and I’m not convinced they can pitch their way to a long series win.
The Cubs are more balanced, but don’t have a ton of depth behind their top players and who ever gets the last Wild Card spot is basically getting the “happy to be here” label.
So, it comes down to the goliath that is the Braves, and the one team constructed to beat them – the Phillies.
Since June 2nd, the Braves have gone 29-12 against teams currently in a playoff spot or within two games of one. They have a run differential in those 41 games of plus-72.
Let that sink in – Plus-72. In 41 games. Against the teams battling for the playoffs.
And the only team they haven’t absolutely bludgeoned in that time is the Phillies.
Yes, they’ve won 3-of-4 so far, but every game has been one haymaker by one team countered by one from the other. The two in June were more from the pitchers. The two from Monday were more from the hitters.
Either way, the Braves look at the Phillies and see a team that doesn’t wilt when the Braves flex and they see a team that is built in the same way – to be relentless offensively and never stop coming after you until that 27th out is recorded.
What you saw Monday should make you feel better about the Phillies than not.
Kyle Schwarber continues to be on a tear.
Say what you want about the guy barely hitting .200 (he passed the Mendoza line for the first time Monday since May 2), but in his last 32 games he is hitting .290 with an on-base percentage of .453.
That’s not a typo. He’s almost reaching base every other plate appearance for more than a month.
Oh, and he’s slugging .737 for an 1.190 OPS.
He had three more hits and two more walks in the doubleheader and scored four runs.
Trea Turner hit ANOTHER home run:
TREA TURNER WITH HIS TENTH HOMER IN ELEVEN GAMES TO MAKE IT A TWO RUN GAME pic.twitter.com/c9L6OXjpst
— Mismatch Philadelphia (@MismatchPhilly) September 11, 2023
That started the Phillies comeback in the opener (and was preceded by a big walk by Schwarber) and came off a reliever the top of the order is likely to see late in a game – Dylan Lee.
Just another four hits total for Turner who now, has an outside shot at a 30/30 season – as he needs five more homers and five more steals in the season’s final 18 games.
And then there’s Bryce Harper who does superhuman things when the spotlight is brightest:
Phillies star Bryce Harper crushes a 2-out, 2-run homer in the 9th to tie it up vs the Braves.
Tom McCarthy and John Kruk on the call for NBC Sports Philadelphia. ⚾️💣🎙️ pic.twitter.com/YvyGbvDaI5
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 11, 2023
That’s off Braves closer Raisel Iglesias. The guy just has a flair for the dramatic and comes through again… and again… and again.
The Phillies got behind early in the opener, and Alec Bohm hit a clutch double to tie it. The Braves went back up and Bryson Stott hit a two-out double to tie it again.
Skeptics will say they didn’t face the Braves two best pitchers yet – and those are coming – Max Fried on Tuesday and Spencer Strider on Wednesday, so we’ll have to analyze further after those two games, but they did reach base 10 times against Charlie Morton and score four times in six innings. And the Braves are searching for their fourth starter in the playoffs – will it be Bryce Elder, or will Kyle Wright get healthy enough to be that option?
The Phillies tattooed Wright in 3-plus innings to the tune of six runs and six hits (also two walks).
Naturally, the argument is the Braves offense is even better and the Phillies might not have the pitching staff to combat it.
It’s a valid argument, but what the Phillies do have is a matchup capability that most teams don’t.
Two relievers who may have different roles in the postseason than they have most of the season are Jeff Hoffman and Matt Strahm. Both came in big spots against the Braves and both had clean pitching innings (one runner reached base against Hoffman on an error).
It was interesting to see the Phillies choose to go to Soto before Strahm, especially with Matt Olson looming and having already hit two dingers in the game. One would think that’s Soto’s matchup.
But of late, it’s been Strahm’s.
Juan Soto. Shohei Ohtani. Matt Olson.
Three lefties in key spots in the game, and Strahm has gotten them all.
Look, none of this suggests the Phillies are cruising right now. Far from it. They are flawed. They still don’t have a playoff rotation settled because starters not named Zack Wheeler are either inexperienced and on an innings watch (Cristopher Sanchez), or who have been less than stellar (to varying degrees – Ranger Suarez, Aaron Nola, Taijuan Walker, and Michael Lorenzen).
Lorenzen may have made his last start of the season Monday and is likely ticketed for the bullpen. Walker has the same issue seemingly every game (starts slow, has trouble throwing strikes), Suarez looked good Sunday against a weak Miami offense, but needs to be more consistent, and Nola is an absolute enigma right now.
In the bullpen, Seranthony Domniguez isn’t missing bats, and without that tool, he’s basically teeing them up for hitters. Soto is wildly inconsistent. He goes from good appearance to bad appearance like a bumble bee in a flower bed. Jose Alvarado is, as Rob Thomson likes to say, trying to do too much. That means he’s in his own head a little bit and ends up overthrowing. If he just focuses on the game in front of him and not living up to some sort of expectation based on last season, or the start of this season when he was virtually untouchable, he can be dominant, but that’s got to be a mental focus adjustment, because his stuff is still very much there. And Craig Kimbrel, while he’s had a couple rougher outings in recent appearances, on the whole is still throwing well and his fastball is potent, and even more deadly when his curveball is under control.
But the bullpen will look a lot different in the postseason than it does even now.
Might the Phillies consider Sanchez as a starter in the postseason? He’s going to face the Braves Wednesday here and then in Atlanta next Tuesday. How he pitches those two games could determine where he slots into the Phillies plan.
But, for kicks, lets say he gives them two solid outings against the potent Bravers offense. Might the rotation for the playoffs be Wheeler, Sanchez, Nola, Walker and Suarez join Lorenzen in the bullpen?
Can you see a world where the nine-man bullpen for a series with the Braves is:
- Kimbrel (closer)
- Alvarado (setup)
- Hoffman (late-inning righty)
- Strahm (late-inning lefty)
- Suarez (Swiss army knife)
- Lorenzen (multi-inning guy)
- Dominguez, Soto, Covey (low-leverage options)
I can. And I think that’s where it’s headed.
A lot will be answered in the remaining five games against the Braves, but the Phillies are the one team built to go toe-to-toe with them. The question that needs to be answered is, can they slay the giant in the postseason again?
Plenty needs to happen before they even get there, including clinching a spot, locking up home field in the Wild Card round and then winning a three-gamer against a team playing good baseball (likely either the Cubs or the Brewers).
But it says here they will see each other in October, and it also says here, that whoever emerges is going back to their second World Series of this decade.