Braves, Spencer Strider clinch another NL East title, made sweeter in Philly

PHILADELPHIA — It was the last game the Atlanta Braves would play at Philadelphia in the regular season, their only chance to clinch the NL East title on the same field where the Philadelphia Phillies unceremoniously ended the Braves’ dreams of repeating as World Series champions a year ago.

With a chance to get rid of what remained of that bad taste, Spencer Strider and the rest of the Braves did just that Wednesday, beating the Phillies 4-1 to clinch their sixth consecutive NL East title — and doing it earlier than all but one Atlanta team ever did before.

“Obviously we knew what the circumstances were coming into this game,” said Strider, who overcame a shaky first inning to pitch seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball for his majors-leading 17th win. He did it against a team he’s dominated in the regular season but struggled mightily against in the third game of the division series a year ago after coming back from an oblique injury.

Make no mistake, whether some would say so publicly or not, this felt sweeter for clinching at Citizens Bank Park, after what happened in October and in other spirited matchups between these division rivals. The second-place Phillies won 11 of 18 games before the Braves arrived and took three of four in this series.

“I think it’s more of, just come in here and make a statement,” veteran Braves reliever A.J. Minter said. “I mean, we’re most likely going to see these guys in the postseason this year. We know that. So to come in here and do it on their turf, show them what we’re made of this year and put a little bit of fear in them.

“What (Strider) did, I’m sure was a little bit of revenge for him, too. For us to come in here, clinch on their home turf, it just means a lot.”

Austin Riley hit a mammoth two-run homer in the first inning and added a sacrifice fly in the third, more than enough offense on a night when Strider improved to 7-0 with a 1.56 ERA in eight career regular-season games (seven starts) against Philadelphia, the best ERA against the Phillies during baseball’s modern era by any pitcher in six or more starts.

This division title had seemed inevitable for two months as the Braves took control early, hitting homers at a record rate and piling up wins. They are a majors-best 96-50 and on pace for 106 wins, which would tie the 1998 Braves for most wins in the nearly 150-year franchise history.

The record is important since it determines home-field advantage for the playoffs, meaning the Braves have plenty to play for the rest of the regular season even with the division in hand. But they were ready to celebrate for one night and perhaps Thursday on their day off in Miami.

“They’re all special, all really hard, and you should enjoy every time you get a chance to do this,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of the division title. “Those guys should enjoy every minute of it. It’s like I told them, don’t forget how this feels either, because this is a really good feeling, that your hard work is for something.”

Snitker added, “They’re so consistent coming to the ballpark every day and winning that day’s game. I never heard one guy talk about magic numbers, how many we’re ahead, all this and that. Or if we were going bad, or losing games in the standings, nothing. I never heard one guy talk about that. All I heard them talk about was getting to the ballpark and getting ready to play.”

Kevin Pillar added an RBI double in the fourth as the Braves built a 4-1 lead. The Phillies got their only run in the first inning after Strider walked two of the first three batters and Bryson Stott hit a two-out single before the Atlanta fireballer retired the next nine and 19 of the last 22 that he faced.

“After having the doubleheader on Monday, our bullpen was taxed,” Strider said. “My job is just to get as many outs as I can. First inning was a little rough, but I was going to go out there until they took the ball away.”

Strider got his 424th career strikeout as a starter, the most by any major-league pitcher in his first 50 starts during at least the past 130 years. It was the 21st time in 29 starts the MLB strikeout leader has recorded at least nine K’s this season.

“I loved how he weathered the storm the first inning,” Snitker said after Strider threw 36 pitches in the first inning and 74 over the next six innings. “I told him how proud I was that he turned that thing around, he didn’t let it get away from him. I could almost see him teetering a little bit (in the first), and then he got through that and he got his rhythm going.”

Trade-deadline pickup Brad Hand continued to solidify a late-innings role with two strikeouts in a perfect eighth inning. With closer Raisel Iglesias unavailable after pitching three days in a row, Kirby Yates pitched a perfect ninth, striking out Brandon Marsh in a nine-pitch at-bat to end the game.

With that, Braves raced in from the dugout and bullpen to celebrate with teammates in the middle of the infield, as boos rained down from Philadelphia fans.

There were the usual cigars, and the spraying of many cases of beer and champagne over the plastic-covered visiting clubhouse as the Braves whooped it up afterward. But the celebration was at least a little more subdued than when they clinched a year ago. Because this felt like a foregone conclusion since early July, after the Braves won 28 of 33 games to build a 9 1/2-game lead.

They had at least a 12 1/2-game lead since Aug. 15, stretching that to 15 to begin September. They clinched in their 146th game, the second earliest for the Braves in the divisional era that began in 1969, behind the 2002 team that clinched in its 141st.

It was the complete opposite from a year ago, when the Braves started slow, the New York Mets came blazing out of the gate, and by the end of May, the Braves were 10 1/2 games out of first place. The Braves didn’t catch the Mets last season until Sept. 6 and were a game behind them before sweeping a huge series against the Mets in Atlanta that lived up to the hype in the last week of the season.

“We’ve chased teams down, so you never take it for granted,” said Alex Anthopoulos, Braves general manager and president of baseball operations. “So you worry the whole time. I think once you start doing the math towards the end, you start thinking, ‘OK, someone’s going to have to go 18-2 and we’ll have to go 1-19 or something,’ so you start feeling a little better as it starts getting closer. But this was a big series, we still had seven games left against these guys. We’ve chased teams down; you definitely can falter, get banged up and so on, and you don’t know how things are going to go when guys start getting hurt and so on. So I just never take it for granted.”

The Braves have been not just the class of the division this season but also arguably of the NL and all of baseball, building the sport’s best record, moving to the top of various polls and power rankings by midseason and mashing home runs at a record pace while piling up wins at a near-record rate.

“This group is unbelievable, they really are,” said Riley, whose homer was his 35th, the third player on this team with at least that many, tying a major-league record the Braves will break if Marcell Ozuna hits one more homer. “I love coming to the yard every day and working with these guys. Guys just keep stepping up. I’ve got to give all the credit to Alex, for going out and finding those guys.

“As someone who’s stayed here, we love to see that. We love to see that we’re going to try to make a run for this. We’ve got a really good group. We talk about it so much, but it’s that next guy keeps stepping up. That’s a huge part of this team.”

They are seven games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers for best record in the NL and 4 1/2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles for best in the majors. If they maintain the best record in the NL, it would assure home-field advantage through the NLCS. Best record in the majors would secure home-field advantage through the World Series, if they make it that far.

Clinching the division was just the first step, albeit a big one.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Strider said. “I mean, that’s what we say on the first day we get to spring training, is we want to win the East. Snit says we’ve got to get a seat at the table. We got it, so the goal now is, obviously, we want to keep winning. Everybody’s going to show up with the same intensity, the same competitiveness as we always do. But the goal is October and making it happen once we get there.”

A year ago, they played only four postseason games, losing 3-1 in the best-of-five division series against the Phillies.

“It’s a new year, everything’s different,” said Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario, whose advice to new teammates who hadn’t experienced the thrill of winning a division title before is: “Just have fun, enjoy the moment.”

Then get back to work Friday against the Marlins.

“This is what we expect when we put on an Atlanta Braves jersey, is to be here every year,” Minter said. “That’s what makes this team and this organization so special.”

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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