Here we go. Or should we say: Here we go again.
Saturday in that feverish baseball hotbed of Atlanta, Ga., it’s the National League Division Series rematch we’ve been waiting for the last 355 days. It’s Braves versus Phillies in the finals of the NL East October Madness Regional.
And while it’s mostly true that the sequel is never as good as the original, are we sure that’s going to apply to Braves-Phillies 2.0?
Let’s go with no, because A) this isn’t “Return to the Blue Lagoon,” and B) that was clearly how the occupants of a beer-soaked clubhouse in Philadelphia were voting Wednesday night.
“It’s gonna be a war,” said Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm, looking as if he’d just completed swimming 800 meters in an Olympic-sized pool filled with Budweiser.
Minutes earlier, the Phillies had finished sweeping another NL East rival, the Marlins, in the Wild Card Series, with a 7-1 thrashing in front of an announced crowd of 45,738 roaring humans whose vocal cords may not be the same for six months. Bryson Stott squashed the first grand slam of his big-league life. Aaron Nola spun seven shutout innings. The sounds of the local baseball anthem, “Dancing on My Own,” rocked the South Philadelphia night, in 45,000-part harmony.
And when the music finally died down, the Phillies were still dancing, all right, onward to Atlanta, where the best team in baseball awaits.
No one has to explain to the Phillies that the Braves are the powerhouse in this sport. Those Braves won 104 games. They finished the season with the same Weighted Runs Created Plus (125) as the mighty 1927 Yankees. They broke more records than Michael Phelps.
But none of that is a secret to the NL East runners-up. These two teams have played each other 36 times in the last two seasons. But the four they each remember most are the four games of the 2022 NLDS, when an 87-win Phillies team upset a 101-win Braves juggernaut, in a series that has reverberated through the baseball bloodstreams of both teams and fan bases ever since.
In Philadelphia, it was a series that ignited a love story between a city and its baseball team that is still raging. In Atlanta, it’s a memory the Braves would love to extinguish next week. So what might it bring us? Before we get into that, how ’bout a little history lesson?
Has any two-time division champ ever been ousted from the postseason by the same division rival two years in a row? I asked that question to my friends from STATS Perform late Wednesday night. The answer will rekindle some memories.
Only twice in the wild-card era have any two division rivals met in the postseason two Octobers in a row. See if you can guess which ones:
2003-04 Yankees–Red Sox: In 2003, Aaron Bleeping Boone happened, and the Yankees broke New England’s hearts one more time. In 2004, the most shocking baseball comeback of all time happened, and the Red Sox finally stomped out the Curse of the Bambino. Epic.
2004-05 Astros–Cardinals: In 2004, the Cardinals survived the greatest seven-game series nobody remembers (because the Red Sox and Yankees cast a giant eclipse over the rest of the postseason). In 2005, the Astros survived Albert Pujols’ breathtaking Game 5 lead-flipping, ninth-inning homer off Brad Lidge, and went on to play in their first World Series.
But what’s the lesson there? That never has any team succeeded in doing what the Phillies will attempt to do in the next round: topple the first-place team in their own division in two postseasons in a row. So does that history matter? Well, we’re about to find out.
So now what? Let’s begin with an impartial observer, Marlins manager Skip Schumaker. His team showed up in Philly this week with big dreams of doing to the Phillies what Arizona did to Milwaukee. Then something very different happened — by which he means Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola happened. The Marlins scored one run off them in 13 2/3 innings of ace-esque mastery, and that was that.
“Wheeler and Nola,” Schumaker said. “Those guys are going to haunt my dreams. Last year they kicked us out (when he was the bench coach) in St. Louis. And this year they kicked us out here in Miami.”
But next week, they’re the Braves’ problem, not his. At least not anymore. The Marlins played the Phillies and Braves 28 times combined this year. So how do they stack up? Schumaker has some thoughts.
On how they match up: “They are two of the best teams in the major leagues that we face. Incredibly tough to navigate a lineup, as far as bullpen matchups. There are no holes. There’s star power up and down the lineup that are postseason-tested.”
On whether the Phillies’ pitching can shut down the Braves’ thumpers: “The Nola-Wheeler combo right there was as good as you’re going to find in the major leagues. And their back-end bullpen, with (José) Alvarado and a playoff-tested (Craig) Kimbrel — and (Gregory) Soto was throwing 102 mile an hour sinkers, whatever it was. They are really tough, and they’re coached really, really well.”
On the terrifying Braves offense: “Obviously the Braves are … we didn’t really know how to pitch them, honestly. I don’t think the league did. We were trying everything, and it starts with, obviously, the top and that middle of the order. … They make you pay when you make a little bit of a mistake.”
So this will be awesome, Schumaker said. So awesome, in fact, that even after spending the last seven months getting bludgeoned by both of them, “I’m looking forward to watching it,” he said, and promised he meant every word of that. But if you haven’t paid as close attention as the Marlins manager has, perhaps you’re asking another question:
Why would this even be close? After all, the Braves finished 14 games ahead of the Phillies in the NL East standings. The Braves also scored 151 more runs (947-796), whomped 87 more homers (307-220) and topped the Phillies in OPS by an eye-popping 80 points (.845-.765).
But maybe, Phillies manager Rob Thomson suggested, this is one time when looking at the totality of that six-month season might not paint an accurate picture.
“The one thing the Braves did,” Thomson said Wednesday night, “is they played consistent baseball all year long. I mean, from day one, they really didn’t go into any large losing streak that I know of. And we struggled getting out of the gate, so that’s something we’ve got to work on in spring training. But I think we’re playing very good baseball right now. And I think it’s going to be a really good series.”
So what Thomson and those players he manages would like to do is imagine that the season actually started on June 3, which is about when these Phillies finally showed up and began playing, over the next four months, like a 101-win team.
If we start the comparison game with just those last four months, we find that the Braves and Phillies were either the two best teams in the National League the rest of the way, or at least were in a three-way conversation that also included the Dodgers.
From that point on, the Braves and Phillies ranked 1-2 in the NL in wins, homers, slugging, barrels, average exit velocity and a bunch of other offensive departments, traditional and non-traditional.
But on the other side of the ball, in that span, the Phillies ranked No. 1 in the league in pitching Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. And the Braves placed a surprisingly distant sixth. But it was Atlanta that ranked first in staff strikeout percentage (24.7 percent), with the Phillies a close third (23.9) and Miami wedged in between them (at 24.5).
So there’s an argument to be made that the Phillies have a supply of arms deep enough to neutralize all those Braves mashers, while uncertainty about the health and readiness of Max Fried and Charlie Morton creates questions about whether the Atlanta rotation can do the same to the Phillies’ nine-deep offense in this NLDS.
We’ll find that out on the field, too, of course. But there’s one more thing you should know:
This is a Rivalry, with a capital “R.”
At a time when Yankees-Red Sox, Dodgers-Giants and Cardinals-Cubs are no longer the storybook material we’re used to, is it possible that this — Braves versus Phillies — is suddenly …
The best rivalry in baseball? Hey, why the heck not. Both teams used that word, “rivalry,” repeatedly when they played each other in home and away matchups last month. And while the Braves won the season series, eight games to five, the Phillies won four of the seven games in Atlanta … not to mention both NLDS games in Philadelphia last October.
But are you familiar with rivalries and how they really work? It isn’t numbers that define them — any kind of numbers. It’s the look in all those eyes and the emotion that pulsates through the ballpark that truly define the best rivalries in sports. And it’s all there when these two teams play.
“I mean, it’s a war, man,” Bohm said. “It’s a bunch of really good players on the field, just battling. They don’t give anything away, and they play clean baseball. They’ve got a good team, and we’ve got the same. …
“It’s this time of year. You play 27 outs, and you battle it out, and you just see where the chips fall.”
“These games are stressful,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “Very stressful. Just navigating through that lineup is not easy because they have guys that have really good at-bats, and they do damage throughout their whole lineup — a lot like I feel our lineup is. So there’s a reason why both of us keep showing up every postseason and having series like this.”
So here we go. Fire up your favorite narratives, whatever it takes. Braves seek revenge … Phillies seek to prove last year was no fluke. … You know how this stuff works. But if you really know, you understand that it isn’t narratives, or last year’s highlight reels, that decide any postseason series.
“We’re starting over,” Realmuto said. “It’s a brand new series. They had an incredible year this year. But we all know we have confidence in this clubhouse, and I think last year’s series helped that. But that doesn’t mean we can just show up and beat them. We’ve got to play well. And we’ve got to do what it takes.”
But Realmuto also confessed that a year later, he still finds himself thinking about this electric NLDS Game 3 moment — the Rhys Hoskins bat-slam long ball that felt as if it fueled everything that came afterward, on the Phillies’ shocking ride to the World Series.
💥 BAT ̶F̶L̶I̶P̶ SLAM 💥
The Phillies take a 4-0 lead thanks to this three-run home run BOMB from Rhys Hoskins.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) October 14, 2022
And as the beer suds flowed in his clubhouse Wednesday evening, he found himself wondering what The Next Moment will look like, in Braves-Phillies 2.0.
“I can’t wait,” Realmuto said. “Hopefully, it’s going to be every bit as exciting — and it leads to the same result in the series.”
(Top photo of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Bryce Harper: Eric Hartline / USA Today)