PHILADELPHIA — After the Braves were beaten soundly by the Phillies in the Division Series for the second consecutive year, manager Brian Snitker told his players they had nothing to hang their heads about, that it was a “phenomenal” regular season and that he was proud of them.
But none of this eased the pain of not just losing again to the wild-card Phillies in a first-round playoff series but getting completely outplayed by a team they finished 14 games ahead of in the NL East during the regular season, and failing to even force a Game 5.
Atlanta won a sixth consecutive division title and went 5-1 at Citizens Bank Park during the regular season. But that all seemed pretty meaningless to them late Thursday after the Braves lost 3-1 to the Phillies, a team that’s been at its best in the past two postseasons. The Braves have shone in the regular season and flopped in the playoffs two years in a row since winning the World Series in 2021, a title that now seems like a bit of an outlier.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to make an adjustment in the way we handle the postseason and the way that we focus and prepare for it, but we’re going to get to work the moment we get out of here,” said Braves pitcher Spencer Strider, who gave up three runs on three solo homers in 5 2/3 innings Thursday, including two by Nick Castellanos, the first player in MLB postseason history to have consecutive multi-homer postseason games.
Strider was the losing pitcher in Games 1 and 4, allowing a combined total of five runs (four earned) in 12 2/3 innings while getting almost no run support in those 3-0 and 3-1 defeats. The Braves led the majors with a modern-era franchise record 947 runs this season and tied a major-league record with 307 home runs, but in the NLDS they were outscored 20-8 and outhomered 11-3 by the Phillies, with Castellanos having more homers in the last two games than the Braves had in the series. Bryce Harper also had three homers to equal the Braves’ series total.
“Obviously, you’re happy with the regular season, winning the division, but to get to the part that counts and fall short hurts,” said Braves first baseman Matt Olson, who led the majors with 54 home runs and 139 RBIs during the season, both franchise records, but didn’t have an extra-base hit or an RBI in the NLDS.
Ronald Acuña Jr., who hit .337 with 41 homers, a majors-leading 73 stolen bases and an NL-leading 1.102 OPS during the season, was 2-for-14 with a double and no RBIs in the NLDS. He grounded out six times in the last two games, including each of his first three at-bats Thursday before hitting a bases-loaded fly ball in the seventh inning off Craig Kimbrel that looked like it might go for extra bases and give the Braves a lead.
Instead, center fielder Johan Rojas made a leaping catch just in front of the wall for the inning-ending play that drew a roar from another raucous sellout crowd at a ballpark that’s become the best home-field advantage in postseason baseball. Acuña left the ballpark without speaking to reporters.
Many Braves and Snitker had said for a couple of days that they thought their offense was just a big hit away from getting rolling. It never came.
“It felt like it was a possibility,” Olson said of the Acuña fly ball being a potential game-changer. “I mean, it’s probably the NL MVP (Acuña), with bases loaded, put together a great at-bat, spoiled some pitches. You saw the play there at the wall. Yeah, that could have been the one if that thing gets down. Unfortunately, can’t play the ‘could’ve.’ He didn’t fully get it, but you see the guy is shaded over to right-center, you saw a lot of grass, he was going to have to run far for it. So, hoping it would get down.
“He looked a little awkward at the wall there, and still ended up making the catch.”
Braves third baseman Austin Riley, whose fourth-inning home run Thursday gave the Braves a short-lived 1-0 lead (before Castellanos homered in the bottom of the inning), said of Acuña’s fly ball, “It’s a game of inches, that’s what it comes down to. The initial crack off the bat, where it was going, you’re hoping it gets down on the grass. Their center fielder can obviously cover a lot of ground, and he closed the gap and made a good play.”
The Braves had one last gasp in the ninth, putting runners on the corners with none out, but the next three batters went down quietly: Kevin Pillar popped out, Orlando Arcia flied out to shallow left, and Vaughn Grissom, who spent most of the season in Triple A, struck out as a pinch hitter to end the game and the Braves’ season.
The Phillies improved to 15-4 in postseason games with a chance to clinch, the best winning percentage (.789) in history among teams with at least 15 such games. That includes a 9-2 record at home and 6-1 at Citizens Bank Park, where they’ve beaten the Braves in NLCS Game 4 two years in a row.
“We had a phenomenal season, but you just want to make it all the way to the end and finish the job,” said Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, who made a tremendous catch to start a game-ending double play in the Braves’ only win in Game 2, but went 0-for-13 in the series.
The Braves hit .186 with a .519 OPS in the series, better in those two categories than only the Dodgers among the eight Division Series teams. The Dodgers were swept by Arizona in three games.
In their eight NLDS games against the Phillies over the past two years, the Braves hit just .183 with eight homers, 21 runs and a .556 OPS, and struck out 77 times in 257 at-bats. After assuming they had reached a nadir of sorts in last year’s NLDS, the Braves were even worse this time, slugging .264 to last year’s .344, and hitting three homers to last year’s five.
“It’s just like last year, it happened the same exact way,” Harris said. “Just try to improve on that next year. Having the season we did, obviously you want to make it a little further.”
The Braves slugged a stunning .501 during the regular season, the first team in history to slug .500 or better for a full season. They barely reached a .500 OPS in the NLDS. The next-highest slugging percentage in the majors during the season was the Dodgers’ .455, and the Dodgers, were the only team with a lower slugging percentage (.250) than the Braves in the NLDS round.
“In baseball, it’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best that day,” Braves reliever A.J. Minter said. “And they played better than us, that’s what it came down to. We’ve just got to come back this offseason and be ready to go at spring training. … When we won the World Series in ’21, we weren’t necessarily the best team.
“I felt like ever since, really 2017 and 2018, every year we just continue to get better and better each year. I mean, the sky’s still the limit for us. We’ve got a great nucleus, great core. There’s no reason why we can’t be back winning the division, back in the postseason, every year for who knows how long? So that’s our expectation every year, is to win the division. We achieved that, but the ultimate goal is to win a World Series, and we didn’t get it done.”
Besides being the only two 100-win teams in the NL this season, what the Braves and Dodgers also had in common was a first-round bye, which meant they had five days off between the regular season and their respective Division Series. Their opponents, the Phillies and Diamondbacks, played best-of-three Wild Card Series during that time, while the Braves and Dodgers tried to stay sharp by playing intrasquad games after both teams also were beaten in the NLDS following a bye in 2022 in the first year of the playoff format that includes first-round byes.
The Braves only took batting practice during that week off last October and hoped this year’s ramped-up activities might help them stay sharp. It obviously did not.
“I’m not going to say that’s an excuse for us — I look at the Astros, it didn’t bother them,” Snitker said. “You know what, we go into this next year, we’re going to try and fight like heck to get home field, win the division. It’s not ideal (the five days off with a bye), and that’s why we, I think, this year we changed the format of our week. Like I said, it’s not ideal, but you know what, if we want to put ourselves in that position, we gotta figure out a way, whether it’s just internally or whatever. We gotta figure it out.”
In truth, it was hard to discern how much this Phillies’ series win had to do with their overwhelming performance on both sides of the ball and how much had to do with the Braves just playing poorly.
“Last two years in the postseason, they’ve done everything right,” Harris said of the Phillies, who got five strong innings from starter Ranger Suárez in Game 4 and another dominant performance from a deep bullpen. “They’ve gotten their fans into it early, put pressure on the other team so the fans can stay in it. They put pressure on the other team early and that kind of helps throughout the whole nine innings.”
Braves veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud said of the Phillies’ performance in the NLDS, “All of them stepped up. All of their big offense and their pitching. Their bullpen all stepped up. Their starters all stepped up. Ranger had a tremendous series, Zack (Wheeler) had a tremendous game, (Aaron) Nola, their whole bullpen. Their pitching was unbelievable. I don’t know, it was their time. It was their time to beat us this year.”
The Braves’ rotation was diluted by injury for the second consecutive NLDS, with veteran Charlie Morton missing the series for an index-finger ligament injury that he said late Thursday wasn’t entirely healed and might possibly have kept him out of the NLCS if the Braves advanced. Max Fried had pitched only once in three weeks before his Game 2 start due to a finger blister.
“Yeah, that’s the tricky part about this game,” d’Arnaud said. “In the postseason, it’s who’s hottest at the time. And they just played better than we did these last four games. We did get a win in, but they played great baseball all four games.”
While the Phillies, winners of 87 games in the 2022 regular season and 90 games this season, have stepped up their performance in the past two postseasons — they reached the World Series last year — the Braves have been unceremoniously jettisoned from the playoffs after winning 101 games in the 2022 season and a majors-leading 104 this season.
Strider thinks he has an idea about why there’s such a disparity in the teams’ postseason performances.
“I think that they’ve got a lot of energy, they’ve got a lot of confidence,” Strider said of the Phillies. “We are a really good club at coming to the park every day over the course of the year and letting our talent come out. And I think in the postseason, in such a confined sample size, you’re tossing a lot of those long-term things out the window. And like I said, we’re going to have a chance to improve the way we focus and prepare for the postseason. There’s just no other way around it. It’s a tough reality to confront, but it’s the only way we’re going to change the results.”
(Top photo: Matt Rourke/Associated Press)