Wednesday, November 29, 2023

2023 MLB playoffs: These Phillies are built for this — the 104-win Braves were not

PHILADELPHIABryce Harper‘s calculated risk had backfired. He was thrown out to end Game 2 of the Phillies‘ NLDS showdown against the Braves, a win that made it seem like everything was going to be OK for baseball’s best regular-season team.

What happened after Harper was doubled off on Monday night exemplifies the fundamental difference between these two NL East rivals this October: These Phillies are built for this. These Braves were not.

Harper, the Phillies and their fans spent the next two games shoving the Braves out of the playoffs in the NLDS for the second year in a row, making sure the electric double play was the last piece of baseball at Truist Park until April.

The Braves, winners of 104 games between March 30 and Sept. 30, won just once in October. Their high-powered offense, considered one of the best in baseball history, scored eight runs in four games. Outside of a tide-turning stretch in Game 2, they managed just three runs in 32 innings.

The Phillies have three trusted starting pitchers, and they all were masterful in the series. Rob Thomson made 18 pitching changes in four games, and nearly all of them resulted in a scoreless frame. The Phillies clobbered nine home runs in their two home wins as Nick Castellanos caught fire.

“We got beat and didn’t play good enough to win the series. It’s as simple as that. We got beat by a really good club that has a penchant for this time of year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters after Game 4.

The Phillies took advantage of everything they could on the field. But this series will be remembered for the advantage the Braves gifted them in their own clubhouse.

The Braves’ season-ending downfall started minutes after Harper was thrown out in Atlanta. Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia, an eight-year MLB veteran, mocked Harper within earshot of reporters in the clubhouse. “Atta-boy, Harper” will be a rallying cry in Philly for years to come.

Providing Bryce Harper extra motivation in a playoff series is not an advisable move, but having fun at your opponent’s expense — especially after a comeback playoff win —  is a defensible action. The problem after the quote became public was that Arcia and the Braves failed to own it. They let it linger and gave Harper the chance to make it his moment.

He cherished the opportunity with a swing that 45,000-plus could feel was coming.

Arcia did not address AttaBoyGate until after Game 3, two Harper home runs and two Harper staredowns later. Arcia admitted saying it – something Braves fans and even their radio announcers questioned during Wednesday’s Game 3 – and added “he wasn’t supposed to hear it.”

The Braves spent their time after an eight-run Game 3 loss airing frustrations with reporters for reporting what was said days earlier. Arcia, who made himself the main character for the Citizens Bank Park crowd, ended the series with a .154 average and in a shouting match with Phillies fans.

When things finally unraveled for the 2023 Braves, they unraveled in a hurry.

When the Phillies got “punched in the face,” as Nick Castellanos put it after Game 2, they rallied behind their star player.

The Phillies out-homered the Braves 11-3 in the series, and their six dingers in the Game 3 win tied a playoff record. The top rail of the home dugout was consistently crowded with players ready to react to the next long ball.

The Phillies dugout can feel like an extension of the crowd during these playoff games. And vice versa. They’ll leave the bellyaching about the playoff format and clubhouse journalism ethics to others; they just want to create “four hours of hell” (even if the pitch clock now makes it more like “three hours and 15 minutes of hell.”)

Before this series even began, Phillies fans got into a social media war with Braves mascot Blooper, who said the Phillie Phanatic was past his prime (the mascot equivalent of an “Atta-boy, Harper”). In Game 4 on Thursday, the Braves reportedly called security after their bullpen was heckled too hard

“I love this place. Flat out, I love this place,” Harper said after Game 3. “There’s nothing like coming into the Bank and playing in front of these fans. Blue collar mentality, tough, fighting every single day. I get chills, man. I get so fired up.”

The Braves might have the most talented roster in baseball and are just two years removed from winning the World Series. But since then, they’ve had two promising seasons end abruptly in the same stadium. The Braves are 0-4 in playoff games in South Philly in the last two years and have been outscored 30-7 in those four games. They knew what to expect this week, but still they did not seem fully ready for it.

Atlanta did get one celebration at Citizens Bank Park this year, when the team clinched the NL East on Sept. 13. Twenty-nine days later, champagne bottles were being popped down the hall, where the infamous words from Arcia were on display.

The Braves tried to have the last laugh after Game 2 of a five-game series. The Phillies took advantage.

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